Case Reports

Uninjured athlete with edematous arm • Dx?

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A 16-year-old boy presented to the emergency room (ER) with pain, redness, and swelling of his right upper arm that had been bothering him for 2 days. He was the quarterback of his high school football team, a sport that he’d been playing since he was 8 years old. He indicated that his football training—which involved repetitive throwing with his right arm—had intensified over the previous 2 months.

Prior to the ER visit, the patient was healthy and active with no significant medical history. He’d had no shoulder trauma and there was no family history of any coagulopathies, venous thrombosis, or pulmonary embolism. He denied chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, and fever, and said that he did not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

On physical examination, his blood pressure was 118/70 mm Hg and his heart rate was 74 beats per minute. He had nonpitting edema and erythema of his right upper arm. His radial and brachial pulses were strong and equal in both arms. Assessment of neurologic and vascular integrity produced positive Wright’s and Adson’s tests, but a negative Halstead’s test. (For more on these tests, see: Wright’s test, Adson’s test, and Halstead’s test.) The circumference of the patient’s right upper arm was 2.5 cm greater than the left upper arm. The remainder of the physical exam was normal.


A duplex ultrasound of the right upper arm revealed an acute occlusive thrombus in the axillary vein. We started the patient on intravenous heparin. A venogram confirmed thrombosis of the axillary-subclavian vein (FIGURE 1A). Based on the patient’s clinical presentation and the results of the venogram, we diagnosed Paget-Schroetter syndrome. The venogram was followed by thrombolysis with alteplase (FIGURE 1B) and a balloon angioplasty (FIGURE 1C). One week later, a repeat venogram demonstrated partial removal of the thrombus and an area of compression on the inferior aspect of the subclavian vein due to a cervical band (FIGURE 1D).


Paget-Schroetter syndrome (PSS), or effort thrombosis of the upper extremities, is defined as spontaneous thrombus in the axillary and subclavian veins that occurs as a consequence of strenuous upper-extremity activity. It is a rare condition with an incidence of one to 2 cases per 100,000 people per year, and represents 1% to 4% of all cases of deep vein thrombosis (DVT).1

Spontaneous thrombosis of the upper extremities typically presents in young, otherwise healthy individuals. It has been described in athletes who are involved in ball games, games with rackets or clubs, aquatic sports, combatant sports, and in violin players.2 The repetitive movements used in these activities can lead to compression of the axillary and subclavian veins by hypertrophied muscles. Repetitive trauma causes intimal damage and thrombogenesis.3

PSS is characterized by the abrupt, spontaneous swelling of the entire arm, cyanosis, and pain that occurs with use or overhead positioning. Enlarged subcutaneous veins are present in the upper arm, around the shoulder, or in the upper anterior chest wall (Urschel’s sign). The classic presentation is acute onset of upper extremity pain and swelling in the dominant arm following a particularly strenuous activity.4 A low-grade fever, superficial thrombophlebitis, or neurologic symptoms may coexist. Certain provocative maneuvers can help reproduce the symptoms (TABLE 15,6). Complications of PSS include pulmonary embolism, postthrombotic syndrome (pain, heaviness, and swelling), and recurrent thrombosis.7

Contrast venography best shows the extent of thrombosis

Duplex ultrasound, with its high sensitivity and specificity, is the initial, noninvasive test of choice (TABLE 24,8-11). However, duplex ultrasound has a false-negative rate of 30% because it is highly technician-dependent and can be complicated by acoustic shadows from the clavicle or sternum.8

The most direct and definitive means to confirm the diagnosis of PSS is catheter-directed contrast venography.9 This method provides complete anatomic information regarding the site and extent of thrombosis, allows definitive evaluation of the collateral venous pathways, and is a necessary step toward the use of thrombolytic therapy. Contrast load, however, contraindicates the procedure in patients with renal failure and in those who are pregnant.

Contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) are also highly sensitive for detecting focal stenosis at the level of the first rib, the presence or absence of enlarged collateral veins, and the chronicity of any thrombus present. However, the usefulness of CT and magnetic resonance venography in initial screening is unclear, due to a lack of randomized controlled trials.

Treatment involves anticoagulants, thrombolytics, and possibly surgery

Prompt use of anticoagulation is indicated in PSS. Initial anticoagulation with low molecular weight unfractionated heparin or a direct thrombin inhibitor followed by warfarin for a minimum of 3 to 6 months is recommended.12

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