superior vena cava syndrome

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Superior Vena Cava Syndrome



The superior vena cava is the major vein in the chest that carries blood from the upper part of the body in to the heart. A restriction of the blood flow (occlusion) through this vein can cause superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS).


Superior vena cava syndrome is a partial occlusion of the superior vena cava. This leads to a lower than normal blood flow through this major vein. SVCS is also called superior mediastinal syndrome and/or superior vena cava obstruction.

Causes and symptoms

More than 95% of all cases of SVCS are associated with cancers involving the upper chest. The cancers most commonly associated with SVCS are advanced lung cancers, which account for nearly 80% of all cases of SVCS, and lymphoma. Cancers that have spread (metastasized) to the chest, such as metastatic breast cancer to the chest and metastatic testicular cancer to the chest have also been shown to cause SVCS.
Other causes of SVCS include: the formation of a blood clot in the superior vena cava, enlargement of the thyroid gland, tuberculosis, and sarcoidosis.
The symptoms of SVCS include:
  • change in voice
  • confusion
  • cough
  • enlargement of the veins in the upper body, particularly those in the arms
  • headache
  • light-headedness
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of the arms
  • swelling of the face
  • trouble swallowing


SVCS should be considered in any cancer patient with swelling of the face and arms. This diagnosis can be confirmed by x ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, or medical resonance imaging (MRI) of the chest that reveals a partial occlusion of the superior vena cava.


Treatment of SVCS depends on the underlying cancer that is causing it. This treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of both. In some cases, surgical procedures may be performed to open (dilate) the vessel. These procedures are generally performed by a trained radiologist or vascular surgeon.

Alternative treatment

Since treatment of SVCS is aimed at treating the underlying disorder that is causing SVCS, alternative treatments must also focus on treating these underlying causes. Alternative treatments for cancer include acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal remedies, hydrotherapy, hypnosis, and massage, among many others.


The prognosis depends on the underlying cause of SVCS. In cases of SVCS caused by lung cancers, the prognosis is generally rather poor since SVCS does not generally occur until the later stages of these diseases.


SVCS may be prevented by early medical intervention to halt and/or reverse the cancer which, in a later stage, would have lead to SVCS.

Key terms

Metastasis — The spread of a cancer from one part of the body (where the cancer originated) to another part of the body.
Sarcoidosis — A disease of unknown origin in which there is chronic (recurrent) swelling in the lymph nodes and other tissues.
Superior vena cava — The major vein that carries blood from the upper body to the heart.
Thymoma — A tumor that originates in the thymus, a small gland just in front of the heart that produces hormones necessary for the development of certain components of the immune system.



Haapoja, I.S., and C. Blendowski. "Superior Vena Cava Syndrome." Seminars in Oncology Nursing 15 (August 1999): 183-9.
Hemann, Rhonda. "Superior Vena Cava Syndrome." Clinical Excellence for Nurse Practitioners 5 (March 2001): 85-7.


Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support and Education. P.O. Box 849 Vancouver, WA 98666. (800) 298-2436.


Beeson, Michael S. eMedicine—Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. May 12, 2001.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

su·pe·ri·or ve·na ca·va syn·drome

complete or partial obstruction of the superior vena cava, usually by cancer, causing edema and engorgement of the veins of the face, neck, and arms, nonproductive cough, cerebral symptoms, and dyspnea.

su·pe·ri·or ve·na ca·va syn·drome

complete or partial obstruction of the superior vena cava, usually by cancer, causing edema and engorgement of the veins of the face, neck, and arms, nonproductive cough, cerebral symptoms, and dyspnea.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012

superior vena cava syndrome

Superior vena cava obstruction, SVC obstruction Vascular disease The narrowing or obstruction of the SVC, a rare condition often linked to mediastinal inflammation, primary or metastatic CA, lymphoma, mediastinal tumors, fibrosis, inflammation–eg, TB, histoplasmosis, thrombophlebitis, aortic aneurysm, constrictive pericarditis Clinical Swelling of arms, head Management Treat 1º cause
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

su·pe·ri·or ve·na ca·va syn·drome

(sŭ-pēr'ē-ŏr vē'nă kā'vă sin'drōm)
Obstruction of the superior vena cava or its main tributaries by benign or malignant lesions, causing edema and engorgement of the vessels of the face, neck, and arms, nonproductive cough, and dyspnea; bluish-looking venous stars may be found in the early phases, overlying the large veins to which they are tributary, but they tend to diminish in size and disappear after collateral circulation has been reestablished.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

superior vena cava syndrome

The range of symptoms caused by obstruction of the superior vena cava, usually by external masses in the upper chest. They include head, neck and arm oedema, often with cyanosis, headache, confusion and coma, distended subcutaneous veins, cough and hoarseness, and difficulty in breathing and swallowing.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Causes of vena cava superior syndrome can also lead to downhill varices.
Screening the patients' documents in our retrospective study, there was no gastrointestinal bleeding in patients with downhill varices regardless of whether they had vena cava superior syndrome or not.
Prognosis is very good in primary downhill varices, but prognosis of downhill varices related to vena cava superior syndrome may be very poor.