Superior Vena Cava (SVC) Obstruction


Superior vena cava (SVC) obstruction impairs venous return through the SVC to the right atrium and has many causes, usually mediastinal masses or complications of SVC lines


  • SVC is the principle venous drainage to head, neck and upper extremities
  • the major collateral is the azygos vein which joins SVC posteriorly over the right main bronchus and drains the posterior thorax
  • if obstruction distal to azygos insertion on the SVC,  compensation occurs
  • if obstruction proximal to azygos then flow must bypass the SVC and return via the internal mammary, superficial thoracoabdominal, vertebral venous system to the inferior vena cava (IVC), resulting in very high pressures


  • indwelling SVC catheters: thrombosis, stricture formation, vessel injury and hematoma
  • lung cancer (90% in patients without SVC catheters)
  • retrosternal tumours e.g. lymphoma, thymoma, dermoid, other malignancies
  • retrosternal goitre
  • massive mediastinal lymphadenopathy e.g. breast cancer, other malignancies, granulomatous disease
  • aortic aneurysm



  • oedema to face, neck, upper torso, upper limbs
  • cough, dyspnea
  • hoarseness and dysphagia
  • syncope and headaches
  • chest pain


  • SVC catheters or scars from previous lines
  • plethoric and facial cyanosis
  • periorbital and facial oedema, exophthalmos, conjunctival injection, and venous dilatation in the fundi
  • distended non-pulsatile neck veins
  • neck oedema: stridor, Horner syndrome, hoarse voice
  • positive Pemberton sign
  • oedema of upper extremities
  • dilated venous collaterals (e.g. chest)
  • pleural effusions
  • cardiac tamponade
  • features of the underlying cause



  • blood tests for systemic disease and organ failure
  • sputum cytology


  • CXR
  • HR CT: thoracic neoplasm, retrosternal thyroid, mediastinal fibrosis, thrombosis from intravascular device, aneurysm
  • MRI


  • bronchoscopy
  • TTE
  • mediastinoscopy + biopsy
  • node biopsy
  • bone marrow aspiration



  1. diagnose cause
  2. treat obstruction
  3. supportive care

Specific therapy is determined by aetiology

  • steroids
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy (30 Gr in 10 fractions)
  • thrombosis: thrombolytic, stent, anticoagulation
  • surgical resection and reconstruction
  • IV access in IVC territory

Prepare for:

  • cardiovascular collapse (tamponade)
  • central airway obstruction
  • laryngeal dysfunction
  • associated respiratory failure

Such catastrophic complications will likely need operative intervention +/- radiotherapy — consider palliation where appropriate

CCC 700 6

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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