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Thromboangiitis Obliterans

(Buerger Disease)


Koon K. Teo

, MBBCh, PhD, McMaster University

Reviewed/Revised Jul 2023
Topic Resources

Thromboangiitis obliterans is inflammation and subsequent blockage of small and medium-sized arteries of the legs or arms.

  • Thromboangiitis obliterans commonly develops in smokers.

  • Symptoms are those of reduced blood flow to an extremity: coldness, numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation.

  • Ultrasonography is often used to detect decreased blood flow in the affected extremity.

  • Stopping smoking is the most important part of treatment.

  • People may also need to take drugs.

Thromboangiitis obliterans is a rare type of occlusive peripheral arterial disease Occlusive Peripheral Arterial Disease Occlusive peripheral arterial disease is blockage or narrowing of an artery in the legs (or rarely the arms), usually due to atherosclerosis and resulting in decreased blood flow. Symptoms depend... read more Occlusive Peripheral Arterial Disease that usually develops in smokers, most commonly in men aged 20 to 40 years. Thromboangiitis obliterans was once considered a man’s disease, but it is becoming increasingly common among women who smoke.

Blood Vessels

How cigarette smoking relates to thromboangiitis obliterans is poorly understood, and what causes the disease is unknown. One theory is that smoking triggers inflammation and narrowing (constriction) of arteries. However, only a small number of smokers develop thromboangiitis obliterans. Some people may be more susceptible than others for as yet unknown reasons. Nonetheless, thromboangiitis obliterans invariably worsens in people who continue to smoke, and amputation is commonly required. In contrast, if people with thromboangiitis obliterans quit smoking, amputation is rarely required.

Symptoms of Thromboangiitis Obliterans

Usually, symptoms of a reduced blood supply to the arms or legs develop gradually. Symptoms include

  • Coldness

  • Numbness

  • Tingling or burning sensation

  • Pain

These abnormal sensations start at the fingertips or toes and progress up the legs or arms. The legs are affected more often than the arms. People may feel abnormal sensations before their doctor sees any skin changes indicating an inadequate blood supply (ischemia) or gangrene. Raynaud syndrome Raynaud Syndrome Raynaud syndrome, a functional peripheral arterial disease, is a condition in which small arteries (arterioles), usually in the fingers or toes, narrow (constrict) more tightly than normal in... read more Raynaud Syndrome and muscle discomfort during exertion (intermittent claudication Symptoms Symptoms ) may develop. Cramps occur in the calf muscles or feet if the legs are affected and in the hands or forearms if the arms are affected.

As the disease progresses, cramps become more painful and last longer. Late in the disease, skin ulcers, gangrene, or both may appear, usually on one or more toes or fingers. The foot or hand feels cold and may turn bluish (cyanosis), probably because blood flow is greatly reduced.

Diagnosis of Thromboangiitis Obliterans

  • A doctor's evaluation of symptoms

  • Angiography

Usually, doctors suspect thromboangiitis obliterans on the basis of symptoms and results of the physical examination. In most people, the pulse is weak or absent in one or more arteries of the feet or wrists. Often, the affected hands, feet, fingers, or toes become pale when raised above the heart and red when lowered. Ultrasonography detects a substantial decrease in blood pressure and blood flow in the affected feet, toes, hands, and fingers. Blood tests and imaging to exclude other causes of decreased blood flow (such as vessel inflammation or vasculitis and blood clots from the heart) are done.

Sometimes a biopsy (removal of a tissue sample for examination under a microscope) of the affected artery or referral to a specialist is needed to confirm the diagnosis of thromboangiitis obliterans.

Treatment of Thromboangiitis Obliterans

  • Stopping smoking

  • Sometimes drugs or surgery

Avoiding exposure to cold, which causes blood vessels to narrow (constrict) is helpful.

Avoiding certain drugs and medications is also helpful. Drugs and medications to avoid include those that cause blood vessels to constrict (such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or phenylephrine, which are components of some sinus congestion and cold remedies), cocaine and amphetamines, and those that increase the tendency of blood to clot (such as estrogen in birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy).

Preventing injury to the affected leg or arm is important. People should take care to avoid burns and injuries due to cold or minor surgery (such as trimming calluses). Corns and calluses should be treated by a podiatrist. Wearing shoes that fit well and have wide toe spaces can help prevent injury to the feet.

Medications, that dilate blood vessels, such as iloprost, may help heal ulcers and reduce pain in people who quit smoking but still have blocked arteries. Other medications, such as pentoxifylline and calcium channel blockers, may be tried to help open blood vessels but are probably not very effective.

Surgery may be done to cut certain nearby nerves (a procedure called sympathectomy) and prevent blood vessels from constricting. These procedures are seldom done because they usually improve blood flow only temporarily.

More Information

The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Contac Cold 12 Hour, Dimetapp Decongestant, Drixoral, ElixSure Cold, ElixSure Congestion, Entex, Genaphed , KidKare , Myfedrine, NASAL Decongestant, Nasofed, Nexafed, PediaCare Infants' Decongestant, Pseudo-Time, Silfedrine, Sudafed, Sudafed 12 Hour, Sudafed 24 Hour, Sudafed Children's Nasal Decongestant, Sudafed Congestion, Sudafed Sinus Congestion, Sudogest, Sudogest 12 Hour, Sudogest Children's , Tylenol Children's Simply Stuffy, Zephrex-D
4-Way Nasal, Ah-Chew D, AK-Dilate, Anu-Med, Biorphen, Formulation R , Foster & Thrive Nasal Decongestion, Gilchew IR, Hemorrhoidal , IMMPHENTIV, Little Remedies for Noses, Lusonal, Mydfrin, Nasop, Nasop 12, Neofrin, Neo-Synephr, Neo-Synephrine, Neo-Synephrine Cold + Allergy, Neo-Synephrine Extra Strength, Neo-Synephrine Mild, Neo-Synephrine Non-Drowsy Cold + Allergy, Ocu-Phrin, PediaCare Children's Decongestant, PediaCare Decongestant, PediaCare Infants' Decongestant, Sinex Nasal, Sudafed PE, Sudafed PE Children's Nasal Decongestant , Sudafed PE Congestion, Sudafed PE Sinus Congestion, Sudogest PE, Vazculep
Pentopak, Pentoxil , Trental
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