We investigated the incidence of and risk factors for venous thromboembolism (VTE) following surgery of the shoulder and elbow and assessed the role of thromboprophylaxis in upper limb surgery. All papers describing VTE after shoulder and elbow surgery published in the English language literature before 31 March 2012 were reviewed. A total of 14 papers were available for analysis, most of which were retrospective studies and case series. The incidence of VTE was 0.038% from 92 440 shoulder arthroscopic procedures, 0.52% from 42 261 shoulder replacements, and 0.64% from 4833 procedures for fractures of the proximal humerus (open reduction and internal fixation or hemiarthroplasty). The incidence following replacement of the elbow was 0.26% from 2701 procedures. Diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis and ischaemic heart disease were identified as the major risk factors.The evidence that exists on thromboprophylaxis is based on level III and IV studies, and we therefore cannot make any recommendations on prophylaxis based on the current evidence. It seems reasonable to adopt a multimodal approach that involves all patients receiving mechanical prophylaxis, with chemical prophylaxis reserved for those who are at high risk for VTE.