Importance: Venous thromboembolism (VTE), comprising deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE), is a common, potentially lethal condition with acute morbidity.
Objective: To review the etiology of VTE and the 3 phases of VTE treatment: acute (first 5-10 days), long-term (from end of acute treatment to 3-6 months), and extended (beyond 3-6 months).
Evidence review: Cochrane reviews, meta-analyses, and randomized controlled trials, as well as other clinical trials for topics not covered by the former, were reviewed. Literature searches using broad terms were used to find meta-analyses published in the last 15 years. The ninth edition of the American College of Chest Physicians Antithrombotic Therapy Guidelines was used to supplement the literature search. Guidelines from specialty organizations were consulted when relevant. The Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health was searched for relevant cost-effectiveness studies. We also searched our own literature database of 8386 articles for relevant research.
Findings: Low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH) along with with vitamin K antagonists and the benefits and proven safety of ambulation have allowed for outpatient management of most cases of DVT in the acute phase. Development of new oral anticoagulants further simplifies acute-phase treatment and 2 oral agents can be used as monotherapy, avoiding the need for LMWH. Patients with PE can also be treated in the acute phase as outpatients, a decision dependent on prognosis and severity of PE. Thrombolysis is best reserved for severe VTE; inferior vena cava filters, ideally the retrievable variety, should be used when anticoagulation is contraindicated. In general, DVT and PE patients require 3 months of treatment with anticoagulants, with options including LMWH, vitamin K antagonists, or direct factor Xa or direct factor IIa inhibitors. After this time, decisions for further treatment are based on balancing the risk of VTE recurrence, determined by etiology of the VTE (transient risk factors, unprovoked or malignancy associated), against the risk of major hemorrhage from treatment. Better prediction tools for major hemorrhage are needed. Experience with new oral anticoagulants as acute, long-term, and extended therapy options is limited as yet, but as a class they appear to be safe and effective for all phases of treatment.
Conclusions and relevance: The mainstay of VTE treatment is anticoagulation, while interventions such as thrombolysis and inferior vena cava filters are reserved for limited circumstances. Multiple therapeutic modes and options exist for VTE treatment with small but nonetheless important differential effects to consider. Anticoagulants will probably always increase bleeding risk, necessitating tailored treatment strategies that must incorporate etiology, risk, benefit, cost, and patient preference. Although great progress has been made, further study to understand individual patient risks is needed to make ideal treatment decisions.