Thrombophlebitis is inflammation of a vein that’s caused by a blood clot. It typically occurs in the legs. A blood clot is a solid formation of blood cells that clump together. Blood clots can interfere with the normal flow of blood throughout your body. Therefore, they’re considered dangerous. Thrombophlebitis can occur in veins near the surface of your skin or deeper down in between your muscle layers.
Although this condition usually occurs in your legs, it’s possible to develop thrombophlebitis in other parts of your body. Blood clots can cause swelling in the veins of your neck or arms, but this is rare.
The two types of thrombophlebitis are deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and superficial thrombophlebitis. DVT occurs when you develop a blood clot in a vein deep in your body. Thrombophlebitis that affects veins closer to the surface of your skin is known as superficial thrombophlebitis. DVT is always more serious than superficial thrombophlebitis.
You might not notice any major or seemingly serious symptoms if you have thrombophlebitis. Minor swelling in the leg or a reddened, tender vein may cause discomfort. This doesn’t mean that it’s safe to ignore the condition. If DVT isn’t treated, it can lead to a pulmonary embolism (PE), or a blood clot in your lungs. A PE can be life-threatening.
Thrombophlebitis is caused by a blood clot. Inactivity, such as being bedridden after trauma or surgery, is a major cause of blood clots. You can develop a blood clot if you sit still for too long, such as during a plane ride or a car ride. Standing up, stretching, and moving your feet periodically during long flights or car rides can help reduce your risk of blood clots. Movement promotes circulation, which discourages the blood cells from sticking together.
You might also develop blood clots if you have somehow injured your blood vessels. Trauma to the limb in question may cause injury to a vein. You may also sustain injury to a blood vessel from intravenous (IV) needles or catheters during a medical procedure. This type of injury, however, is a less common cause of blood clots.
Some people have diseases or disorders that cause the blood to clot more easily, such as:
- inflammatory bowel disease
This makes thrombophlebitis more likely.
The following also increase your risk of blood clots:
- hormone therapy, including some birth control pills
The symptoms of thrombophlebitis depend partly on which kind you have. You can experience the following symptoms near the affected area if you have either kind of thrombophlebitis:
Superficial thrombophlebitis sometimes causes the affected vein to become visibly engorged and red.
DVT is less visible than thrombophlebitis because the affected vein is further from the surface of the skin. However, it’s likely you’ll still have the other symptoms of thrombophlebitis. Additionally, your toes or fingers on the affected limb may become discolored and turn blue. The pain will probably be worse when you put weight on your leg. In rare cases, you might develop a fever with chills.
In some cases, your doctor won’t need to do any major tests to identify the problem. The appearance of the area and your description of your symptoms may be enough to diagnose this condition.
If this isn’t enough, your doctor may try to use an imaging technique to see whether a clot is present. Options include an ultrasound, a CT scan, and an MRI scan. Amongst these tests, ultrasound is the most frequently used to diagnose DVTs.
In other cases, your doctor might choose to perform a venogram. This involves injecting a dye, which shows up on X-rays, into your vein. Your doctor will then take X-ray images to see whether you have a clot.
Your doctor might recommend that you take care of your condition at home if you have superficial thrombophlebitis. They’ll give you instructions that may include:
- applying heat
- wearing support stockings
- keeping the limb elevated
- using anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen
Your doctor might need to remove the vein if the one with superficial thrombophlebitis becomes permanently unsightly or painful, or if you have this condition in the same vein more than once. This is known as varicose vein stripping. This type of procedure shouldn’t affect your circulation. Some veins deeper in the leg can handle the increased amount of blood flow. The blood will simply begin to flow through those.
In other cases, especially if you have DVT, you might need to take medications. These medications include anticoagulants, which thin your blood and thrombolytics, which dissolve clots. Your doctor may also inject the medication directly into your vein.
You may not be able to take blood-thinning medications. If this is the case, your doctor may need to insert a permanent filter into the main vein in your abdomen to prevent loose clots from reaching your lungs and causing a PE.
In some cases, your doctor may need to remove the clot or open up your blocked vein through bypass surgery or angioplasty.
Bypass surgery involves taking a piece of a healthy vein and attaching it to the blocked vein through two small holes. The blood will then flow through this newly attached vein, bypassing the blocked one.
Recent research has included using angioplasty on larger veins, where your doctor inserts a balloon-tipped tube into the blocked vein. Once the tube reaches the blockage, your doctor inflates the balloon on the tip to open up the vein. They then remove the tube. Your doctor may need to insert a wire mesh tube called a stent into your vein to keep it permanently open.
Stretch or walk around regularly if you sit at a desk for long periods or if you’re taking a long trip in a car or airplane. Sitting still for too long can lead to thrombophlebitis.
Your doctor will change your IV lines regularly if you’re in the hospital. They might also give you medications to help prevent thrombophlebitis depending on your condition and other factors.