Medical treatment of dvt and pe

Original authors: Russell D. Hull, Graham F. Pineo, and Thomas W. Wakefield
Abstracted by Kellie R. Brown
Once the diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolus (PE) is
made, treatment of the condition must be undertaken. While new therapies are on the
horizon, this chapter will discuss currently accepted therapies.
Goals of Treatment (Why treat a DVT or PE)?
• To prevent a pulmonary embolism (if not already present)
• To prevent death from pulmonary embolism
• To prevent a recurrent DVT
• To prevent the post-phlebitic syndrome

How is a DVT or PE treated? (See Table 1)
DVT and PE are treated essentially the same, with a few exceptions. Once the condition
is diagnosed, heparin (a blood thinner injected into a vein or directly into the fatty
tissues of the body) is given. There are two types of heparin that can be used. One is
called unfractionated heparin, and this is the one that is runs directly into the vein by
way of an intravenous line. One is called Low Molecular Weight Heparin (LMWH),
and this is the one that is injected directly through the skin into the fatty tissues of the
body. Either can be used, but LMWH is generally preferred, unless the patient has
kidney failure.
Once the heparin has thinned the blood enough (as determined by blood tests), an oral
blood thinner can be started. This is called warfarin (commonly known as
. The heparin is continued until the warfarin has reached an effective level,
as determined by a blood test called the INR (which stands for international normalized
). The INR should be about 2 to 3 in most cases. At this point the heparin can be
The warfarin is continued for various amounts of time, depending on the clinical
situation. In most uncomplicated cases of a first time DVT or PE, the warfarin is
continued for 3-6 months. In certain cases, when the DVT or PE is recurrent, or when
the risk factors for DVT or PE are not temporary (such as a blood clotting disorder),
warfarin may be maintained for life.
Provided by the American Venous Forum:
What if blood thinners can’t be used?
If heparin or warfarin can’t be used, either because the patient can’t tolerate it or they
have a high risk of bleeding from it, then a vena cava filter can be used. A vena cava
is a mesh “umbrella” device that is inserted into the large vein in the abdomen
using a catheter inserted in the groin. This catches any clot that may break off from the
clot in the leg, and prevents it from traveling to the lung and becoming a PE.
Surgery to remove the clot, either from the leg (as in a DVT) or from the lung (as in a
PE) is rarely done. If the symptoms from the DVT or PE are very severe and life or limb
threatening, then thrombolysis (clot dissolving drugs) can be considered.
Some patients with a pulmonary embolus are very ill. If a patient with a PE has a very
low blood pressure, or is having a lot of trouble keeping enough oxygen in the blood,
then a more aggressive treatment may be done. One option for more aggressive
treatment is an injection of a medication to break up clot. This is called thrombolysis.
This can break up the clot in the lung arteries, but it could also break up clot in other
places in the body, so it can cause bleeding. The most dreaded complication of this
treatment is to bleed into the brain. Because of the risk of this, thrombolysis is used only
if the patient is not able to keep up their blood pressure or oxygen level.
Another aggressive treatment that could be tried is to remove the clot from the artery that
has the PE in it. This can be done using a catheter placed from the groin and passed up
into the lungs, or it can be done with surgery. This is only done in patients who are likely
to die without this treatment.
Is there anything else that can be done to help the symptoms?
In addition to medication or a vena cava filter, patients who have a DVT should wear
elastic compression stockings for 2 years after the DVT is diagnosed. This will help
prevent the post-thrombotic syndrome; long-term swelling, lower leg skin changes, or
even skin breakdown (ulcers). Also, patients who have a DVT can walk around as usual.
Bed rest is not encouraged. Leg elevation when at rest is helpful.
What if the DVT is in the arm?
Most DVTs are located in the legs. However, DVT can occur in the arm. If it does, it
should be treated just as lower extremity DVT’s are treated. Most DVTs in the arm are
caused by placement of central venous catheters (which are large IVs that are placed in
the large veins of the arm and neck.) If one of these catheters is present in a vein that has
clot in it, it should be removed and blood thinners should be started just as in the case of
a leg DVT.
If the clot is thought to be due to thoracic outlet syndrome (a condition where the
opening from the chest into the arm isn’t large enough, and the vein gets compressed with
arm movement), then thrombolysis is often used, followed usually by surgery to make
the thoracic outlet larger.
Provided by the American Venous Forum:
DVT and PE are treated essentially the same. Initial treatment usually consists of
LMWH, followed by warfarin. Once the warfarin levels are appropriate, the LMWH
is stopped. The warfarin is continued for 3-6 months in most cases of a first time DVT
or PE. In the case of a recurrent event, warfarin may be continued for life. If blood
aren’t able to be used, a filter can be placed to prevent the clot from travelling
to the lungs. If symptoms are very severe, removal of the clot from the vein, usually by
thrombolysis, can be undertaken.
Table 1: DVT and PE Treatment Summary

Initial Treatment of DVT or PE
• Low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) or IV heparin should be started. • This should be continued for at least 5 days. • Warfarin (an oral blood thinner) can be started once the heparin is at appropriate • Heparin can be stopped once the Warfarin is at an appropriate level (INR of 2-3). Additional Treatments
• Thrombolysis can be considered if the clot is severely symptomatic, or if it life or • Vena Cava Filter can be used if blood thinners cannot be used, or if they fail. • Surgery to remove the clot is not routinely used. It may be considered in very Length of Warfarin Therapy
• For patients with a first time DVT or PE due to a reversible risk factor, treatment with Warfarin is recommended for at least 3 months. • For patients with a first time DVT or PE who have no identifiable risk factors, treatment should continue for at least 6 to 12 months. • Patients with a DVT or PE who have no identifiable risk factors should consider • For patients with a first time DVT or PE who have a known clotting disorder should be treated for at least 12 months, and possibly indefinitely. • For patients with more than one known DVT or PE episode, warfarin therapy should Post-thrombotic Syndrome
• An elastic compression stocking with a pressure of 30-40mmHg at the ankle (high grade compression) should be used for 2 years after an episode of DVT. This helps to prevent long-term symptoms. Provided by the American Venous Forum:


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