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Blood vessel blockage

Find out how a blood vessel blockage in the neck can cause breathlessness.

The large blood vessel in the neck is called the superior vena cava. This vessel might become blocked. This is called superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO). 

It can happen in different cancers including:

  • lung cancer
  • breast cancer
  • oesophageal cancer
  • non Hodgkin lymphoma


Blockage of the blood vessel (SVCO) can be caused by:

  • a blood clot within the blood vessel
  • the tumour itself pressing on the blood vessel
  • cancer in the nearby lymph nodes, making them larger and pressing on the blood vessel

The pressure on the blood vessel stops blood going back to the heart from the head and arms. This causes swelling around your windpipe (trachea) making breathing difficult.


Symptoms of blood vessel blockage in the neck (SVCO) include:

  • swelling of face, voice box, neck and arms
  • chest pain
  • a cough
  • dizziness
  • eyesight changes
  • headache


SVCO needs urgent treatment. You might need oxygen, and steroids to reduce the swelling in your neck. You might also have water tablets (diuretics) which make you pass more urine to help reduce swelling.

The doctor may put a thin tube called a stent into the vein to keep it open. You might have radiotherapy or chemotherapy to try and shrink the tumour and stop it pressing on the vena cava.

If SVCO is caused by a blood clot, you have drugs to thin the blood (anti coagulants), such as heparin and warfarin.

Last reviewed: 
06 Oct 2017
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  • Palliative procedures in lung cancer

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    Seminars in interventional radiology Jun;30(2):199-205

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