Catheter-Directed Thrombolysis: A Treatment Option for You?

HCA image for PE/DVT You might be surprised to learn that it is not unusual for the blood to clot inside a vein from time to time. Most clots are small, cause no symptoms, and are dissolved by an enzyme in your blood. However, if the clot becomes large enough, it can lead to potentially life-threatening health problems.

In most cases, medications can be used to treat a majority of clotting problems. There is also another treatment option called catheter-directed thrombolysis. Like medications, this treatment offers a way to treat dangerous clots. However, it is not an option that is best for everyone with clotting problems. Talk to your doctor to find out if catheter-directed thrombolysis is appropriate for your condition. In the meantime, here is an overview on this treatment option.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the result of a blood clot forming in a vein deep within the body. It commonly occurs in the deep veins that lie near the center of the legs. Generally, contractions of the muscles in the arms and legs help force blood in the veins back to the heart.

DVT may result from a combination of factors such as having:

  • Sluggish blood flow
  • Changes in the level of circulating clotting factors
  • An injury to a blood vessel

Sluggish blood flow can be the result of sitting for long periods of time, like on a long airline flight, or long periods of bed rest such as after surgery, serious illness, or injury.

Clotting factors are substances that circulate naturally in the blood to regulate clot formation. However, certain trauma to the body such as surgery, injury, or giving birth, may increase the level of clotting factors circulating in the blood. This, in combination with the reduced mobility that results from these actions, may set the stage for DVT. Similarly, many cancers increase the production of substances that promote clotting and in effect may cause DVT or pulmonary embolism.

Typically, these clots come on suddenly and without warning. They can cause swelling and pain in the leg. However, the greatest problem is that so long as the clot is present, the patient is at risk for a pulmonary embolism (PE).

Pulmonary Embolism

PE is a potentially fatal complication of DVT. PE is a blockage of an artery that occurs when a clot formed in another part of the body breaks loose and travels through the bloodstream until it becomes stuck in a large blood vessel in the lungs.

The clot, called an embolus, is usually a blood clot—although it can also be an air bubble, or a piece of fat, bone marrow, or tumor tissue. It generally originates in the deep veins of the legs or hips. When the clot becomes stuck in the artery in the lungs, it prevents blood flow to that portion of the lung, causing damage and tissue death. This can cause the lung to stop working properly and strain the heart. If it is not treated, it can be fatal.

Defining Catheter-Directed Thrombolysis

Catheter-directed thrombolysis involves inserting a catheter into a vein in the leg and carefully threading it through the vein until it reaches the site of the blood clot.

When the tip of the catheter reaches the clot, a clot-dissolving drug is infused into the clot through the catheter. In most cases, the blood clot will completely dissolve within 1 to 2 days. The procedure is monitored using special x-rays and ultrasound scans. These images will also allow help determine if the vein wall is narrowed or damaged, making it prone to more clots in the future. If this type of damage has occurred, an additional procedure may be needed. This can include placing a balloon ( angioplasty) or mesh stent into the vein to keep it from clotting again.

Benefits of Catheter-Directed Thrombolysis

Post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS) is a chronic condition that occurs in some people who have DVT, even those who have been treated with clot-dissolving drug. With PTS, there is an abnormal pooling of the blood in the leg, which may be accompanied by a range of symptoms, like chronic leg pain, heaviness in the leg, swelling, discoloration, and severe skin ulcers.

If you have DVT, the catheter procedure may be an option for you if you meet certain criteria such as:

  • Having a blood clot in the vein in the thigh
  • Having a low risk for bleeding complications

The potential benefits of catheter-directed thrombolysis include:

  • Reduced risk of developing PTS
  • Restoration of normal blood flow in the affected leg

As with any procedure, the benefits need to be balanced with the risks, like the increased risk of bleeding.

Getting Medical Care

If you have symptoms of DVT, such as leg pain and swelling, make an appointment with your doctor. If you have symptoms of PE, you should seek emergency medical care right away.


American Heart Association
Society of Interventional Radiology


Canadian Cardiovascular Society


Catheter-directed thrombolysis. Radiology Info—Radiological Society of North America website. Available at: Updated March 21, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Deep vein thrombosis. Society of Interventional Radiology website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2017.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated July 29, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Post-thrombotic syndrome. Vascular Cures website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed October 25, 2017.
Pulmonary embolism (PE). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated September 26, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Venous thromboembolism (blood clots). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated July 7, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/17/2014

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