Review Article - Imaging in Medicine (2015) Volume 7, Issue 1

Stenting in malignant superior vena cava syndrome review advances: in interventional radiology

Poul Erik Andersen* & Stevo Duvnjak

Department of Radiology, Odense University Hospital and University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

Corresponding Author:
Poul Erik Andersen
Department of Radiology
Odense University Hospital and University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
Tel: 6550 1000
E-mail: [email protected]


Superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome is a clinical syndrome which is caused by obstruction or compression of SVC and characterized by congestion and edema of upper body, upper extremities, and face, dilatation of neck, arm, and chest wall veins, respiratory distress, and cyanosis and the patients may experience cough, dyspnoea, haemoptysis, dysphagia, chest pain, headache, visual disturbance, convulsions and coma [1,2]. SVC syndrome may be caused by indwelling catheters, pacemaker wires or fibrosing mediastinitis [3-5] but 90 – 95% of the cases are caused by lung or mediastinal malignant tumors [6]. In these cases tIndication andhe aim of endovascular stent implantation is palliative and to alleviate the patients’ symptoms. It has been used in stenosis and obstruction of SVC for more than two decades [7,8]. Stent has become widely accepted in the management of malignant SVC obstruction and is now an accepted therapy as treatment of malignant SVC obstruction especially in advanced lung cancer and mediastinal tumours. Stenting in malignant SVC obstruction is increasingly been performed as it offers rapid relief of symptoms and gives the patients a better quality of life during their limited life expectancies due to the malignant disease itself.


Superior vena cava syndrome; stent; treatment; palliative; interventional radiology; mediastinum neoplasms

Radiological examinations

Compression and obstruction of SVC is verified by contrast enhanced computed tomography (CT) which is performed before intervention to give accurate diagnosis and to demarcate the extent, level and cause of SVC obstruction as well as possible thrombus formation (FIGURES 1 and 2).


Figure 1: Patient with disseminated small cell lung cancer. Superior vena cava syndrome after maximal adjunct chemotherapy and radiotherapy and corticosteroid treatment. Compressed superior vena cava (arrow)


Figure 2: Same patient, coronal reconstruction. Curly bracket demonstrates superior vena cava compression.

Interventional technique

Venous access is gained under local analgesia, typically through the right femoral vein, and alternatively through the left femoral vein or through either of the internal jugular veins. Stenotic lesions are crossed with a 5F catheter over a hydrophilic guide wire. A superior vena cavagram is performed prior to the intervention to define the landing zone for the stent proximally and distally (FIGURE 3) as well as after stent deployment (FIGURES 4 and 5). If the obstruction involves both brachiocephalic veins, it is recommended to place stents in only one of these and in the SVC as stenting of both brachiocephalic veins may result in higher complication rates and lower survival [9,10]. If possible, stents are deployed so the obstruction is covered and there is at least 1 cm of diseasefree vessel at both ends [1] (FIGURES 6 and 7).


Figure 3: Same patient. Pre interventional cavagram demonstrates superior vena cava compression with severe stenosis (thin arrow). Dilated azygos vein with increased collateral flow (thick arrow).


Figure 4: Same patient. Balloon dilatation after stenting with 16mm x 60mm nitinol stent.


Figure 5: Same patient. After stent implantation and post stent balloon dilatation with no azygos flow. The stent was fully expanded with the balloon, but a residual stenosis about 50% after dilatation because of recoil. There was complete symptomatic relief within the first 24 hours after stenting.


Figure 6: Another patient with severely stenosed superior vena cava and dilated azygos vein (arrows) with collateral flow.


Figure 7: Same patient as Figure. 6 after stent deployment. The stenosis is covered by the stent both proximally and distally and the stenosis is reduced to < 50%. There is no longer azygos vein flow and rapid contrast filling of right atrium.

There is no agreement concerning balloon dilatation before or after deployment of stent (FIGURE 4). Predilatation might have an increased potential risk of pulmonary embolizations especially if there is thrombus formation but may be necessary to allow passage of the stent delivery system through the stenosis/occlusion. It is recommended to oversize the stent by 10–20 % compared with the normal diameter of SVC proximal and distal to the stenosis. Bolus of 5,000 units of unfractionated heparin (70 IU/kg) is given during the procedure.

Nitinol stents are recommended, as opposed to stainless steel stents, because recurrence of SVC syndrome has been found to significantly increase with use of stainless steel stents compared with nitinol stents [11]. There is no evidence that one type of nitinol stent is better than the others [12]. One non-randomized study has evaluated outcomes of covered stents and compared them with uncovered stents in patients with malignant SVC syndrome [13]. They found that covered stents seemed to be superior to uncovered stents in terms of stent patency but did not differ in terms of clinical success. Bare stents are generally being used, but covered stents might be preferred in cases of suspicious malignant invasion of SVC with risk of vessel perforation but the bigger introducing systems and higher price of the covered device is not in favor of covered stent for general use in SVC syndrome instead of bare stents. As there are no randomized studies, it is unclear whether patients in stenting studies are selected in any particular way [14].

Technical success and clinical outcome

Technical success defined as stent deployment in the intended location with < 50% residual stenosis and no adverse events or complications which can be ascribe to the procedure itself during the procedure or within the first 48 hours after the procedure. This can usually be achieved in more than 90% of the cases [1,15,16]. Technical failure is mostly associated with SVC occlusion, bilateral innominate vein occlusion and thrombus. Peri- and postprocedural complication rates are about 6%, and mortality rate approximately 3% [1,17-19].

The clinical outcome with relief of SVC symptoms within the first 48 hours and no associated complications is more than 90% [1,14-16,19,20]. The recurrence rate is about 10% but a high proportion of these patients can be treated with re-intervention. Stenting seems to be the most effective and rapid treatment for the relief of SVC symptoms [14]. Stenting provides immediate and sustained symptomatic relief that lasts until death in this set of patients with a short life expectancy. It is debated whether stent deployment should be used in an earlier phase of SVC syndrome before manifest symptoms or wait until the patients have received maximal adjunct chemotherapy and radiotherapy [11].


There is no consensus on postprocedural anticoagulation strategy in the literature with regard to a compromise balancing risk of recurrent thrombosis and prevention of hemorrhagic complications [1,11,14]. Antiplatelet aggregation regimen with aspirin after the procedure is generally recommended [10,21]. There is no routine follow-up imaging protocol in the literature.


There is a low reported morbidity related to cava superior stenting, and complications are uncommon. Peri- and postprocedural complications related to SVC stenting rates are about 6%, and mortality rate approximately 3% [1,17-19].

Stent fracture, stent thrombosis and stent infection have been described. There have been published case reports on stent migration [22,23] and pericardial tamponade [24-26]. Lung emboli may also be a potential complication.


Stenting of SVC has become widely accepted as palliative treatment for SVC syndrome in malignant diseases. Outcomes and complications compare very favorably with standard therapies such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy [1].

In advanced lung cancer, data support the use of stenting for relapse of SVC syndrome or persistent SVC syndrome following initial standard radio-chemotherapy. Randomized studies are required comparing standard radiochemotherapy and stenting for persisting or recurrent SVC syndrome with initial stenting followed by standard radio-chemotherapy [14].

Stent implantation is a minimally invasive method performed with low mortality and morbidity.


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