Diagnostic management of venous thromboembolism

Baillieres Clin Haematol. 1998 Sep;11(3):541-86. doi: 10.1016/s0950-3536(98)80083-8.


The accuracy of diagnostic methods for the diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism in symptomatic patients is critically reviewed. In addition, the safety of withholding anticoagulant therapy from patients with suspected deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism in whom the qualified diagnostic strategy was normal is evaluated by determining the frequency of venous thromboembolic complications during 3 months of follow-up. It is shown that the currently used available diagnostic techniques for deep vein thrombosis are all able to identify the majority of patients who indeed have venous thrombosis. However, as result of its accuracy and practical advantages, compression ultrasound is the test of choice in the evaluation of symptomatic patients. Patients with a normal test outcome should be re-tested to detect the small proportion of patients with proximally extending calf vein thrombosis. In the strategy of repeated diagnostic testing, impedance plethysmography could be used as an alternative to ultrasonography. To obtain a reduction in repeat tests various diagnostic strategies have been evaluated and it was shown that these strategies, using non-invasive tests, can be as accurate and safe as the invasive reference strategy. The safeties of the various strategies were very similar; however, important differences were observed with respect to the practical implementation of the various diagnostic strategies. Simplification of the repeated testing strategy by using a D-dimer assay and/or a clinical decision rule seems to be promising. The reference standard for the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism remains pulmonary angiography. Several strategies based on non-invasive diagnostic methods have been evaluated for their safety and complexability. Perfusion-ventilation lung scanning is the most thoroughly evaluated non-invasive technique so far. It seems safe to withhold anticoagulant therapy in patients suspected of pulmonary embolism with a normal perfusion lung scan result; however, further testing is needed in the case of a non-diagnostic perfusion-ventilation lung scan result. At this moment angiography is the method of choice in this category of patients. D-dimer assays, clinical decision rules and ultrasound examinations of the legs seem to have a high potential to limit the need for angiography. Also, spiral computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging are promising techniques, but their role in the diagnostic management of pulmonary embolism is still uncertain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Techniques and Procedures*
  • Humans
  • Reference Standards
  • Venous Thrombosis / diagnosis*
  • Venous Thrombosis / physiopathology