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July 1992

Dermatologic Features of the Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

Author Affiliations

From the Seattle (Wash) Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Washington School of Medicine.

Arch Dermatol. 1992;128(7):953-956. doi:10.1001/archderm.1992.01680170085012

• Background.—  The superior vena cava syndrome occurs when extrinsic compression or intraluminal occlusion impedes blood flow through this vessel. The most common underlying cause is a malignant neoplasm, especially a bronchogenic carcinoma. This article describes the cutaneous findings of this disorder.

Observations.—  Among the earliest and most prominent features are numerous, dilated, vertically oriented, and tortuous cutaneous venules or veins above the rib cage margin. Recognition of this cutaneous sign allowed us to make a diagnosis of lung cancer in several patients. Other features include upper body edema and ruddiness or cyanosis, distended neck veins, proptosis, and conjunctival suffusion.

Conclusions.—  Detecting the characteristic cutaneous features can lead to an early diagnosis of the superior vena cava syndrome. These skin changes usually represent indirect dermatologic signs of an underlying malignant neoplasm; for most patients, this syndrome is the initial manifestation of their cancer. The most common cause is a bronchogenic carcinoma, especially the small-cell variety, but others include lymphomas, primary mediastinal tumors, and metastases to the mediastinal lymph nodes from extrathoracic primary tumors, especially breast cancer. Treatment of the underlying malignant neoplasm and relief of the obstruction produce prompt improvement in the dermatologic findings.(Arch Dermatol. 1992;128:953-956)

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