Condition 101 About SVC Obstruction

What is the definition of SVC Obstruction?

SVC obstruction is a narrowing or blockage of the superior vena cava (SVC), which is the second largest vein in the human body. The superior vena cava moves blood from the upper half of the body to the heart.

What are the alternative names for SVC Obstruction?

Superior vena cava obstruction; Superior vena cava syndrome

What are the causes for SVC Obstruction?

SVC obstruction is a rare condition.

It is most often caused by cancer or a tumor in the mediastinum (the area of the chest under the breastbone and between the lungs).

Other types of cancer that can lead to this condition include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Metastatic lung cancer (lung cancer that spreads)
  • Testicular cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Thymus tumor

SVC obstruction can also be caused by noncancerous conditions that cause scarring. These conditions include:

  • Histoplasmosis (a type of fungal infection)
  • Inflammation of a vein (thrombophlebitis)
  • Lung infections (such as tuberculosis)

Other causes of SVC obstruction include:

  • Aortic aneurysm (a widening of the artery that leaves the heart)
  • Blood clots in the SVC
  • Constrictive pericarditis (tightening of the thin lining of the heart)
  • Effects of radiation therapy for certain medical conditions
  • Enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter)

Catheters placed in the large veins of the upper arm and neck may cause blood clots in the SVC.

What are the symptoms for SVC Obstruction?

Symptoms occur when something blocks the blood flowing back to the heart. Symptoms may begin suddenly or gradually, and may worsen when you bend over or lie down.

Early signs include:

  • Swelling around the eye
  • Swelling of the face
  • Swelling of the whites of the eyes

The swelling will most likely be worse in the early morning hours and go away by mid-morning.

The most common symptoms are shortness of breath (dyspnea) and swelling of the face, neck, trunk, and arms.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Decreased alertness
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Headache
  • Reddish face or cheeks
  • Reddish palms
  • Reddish mucous membranes (inside the nose, mouth, and other places)
  • Redness changing to blueness later
  • Sensation of head or ear fullness
  • Vision changes

What are the current treatments for SVC Obstruction?

The goal of treatment is to relieve the blockage.

Diuretics (water pills) or steroids (anti-inflammatory drugs) may be used to temporarily relieve swelling.

Other treatment options may include radiation or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, or surgery to remove the tumors. Surgery to bypass the obstruction is rarely performed. Placement of a stent (tube placed inside a blood vessel) to open up the SVC may be performed.

What is the outlook (prognosis) for SVC Obstruction?

The outcome varies, depending on the cause and the amount of blockage.

SVC obstruction caused by a tumor is a sign that the tumor has spread, and it indicates a poorer long-term outlook.

What are the possible complications for SVC Obstruction?

The throat could become blocked, which can block the airways.

Increased pressure may develop in the brain, leading to changed levels of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, or vision changes.

When should I contact a medical professional for SVC Obstruction?

Call your provider if you develop symptoms of SVC obstruction. Complications are serious and can sometimes be fatal.

How do I prevent SVC Obstruction?

Prompt treatment of other medical disorders may reduce the risk of developing SVC obstruction.



Gupta A, Kim N, Kalva S, Reznik S, Johnson DH. Superior vena cava syndrome. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 53.

Kinlay S, Bhatt DL. Treatment of noncoronary obstructive vascular disease. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 66.

Latest Advances On SVC Obstruction

  • Condition: Malignant Superior Vena Cava Syndrome
  • Journal: Journal of vascular and interventional radiology : JVIR
  • Treatment Used: Superior Vena Cava Stent Placement Through an Upper-Limb Approach
  • Number of Patients: 132
  • Published —
The goal of this study was to retrospectively evaluate outcomes of superior vena cava (SVC) stent placement through upper-limb venous access in malignant SVC syndrome (SVCS) and compare the effectiveness of different nitinol stent types.
  • Condition: Superior Vena Cava Occlusion
  • Journal: Hemodialysis international. International Symposium on Home Hemodialysis
  • Treatment Used: Sharp Recanalization
  • Number of Patients: 16
  • Published —
This study tested the safety and efficacy of using a sharp recanalization to treat hemodialysis patients with superior vena cava occlusion.

Clinical Trials For SVC Obstruction

Clinical Trial
  • Status: Recruiting
  • Phase: N/A
  • Intervention Type: Device, Radiation
  • Participants: 20
  • Start Date: April 23, 2019
Pilot Study of Same-session MR-only Simulation and Treatment With MRI-guided Adaptive Palliative RadioTherapy (MAP-RT)
Clinical Trial
  • Status: Recruiting
  • Intervention Type: Procedure
  • Participants: 100
  • Start Date: September 13, 2014
Superior Vena Cava Reconstruction in Patients on Hemodialysis