Thromboangiitis obliterans (also known as Buerger’s disease) is a recurring progressive inflammation and thrombosis (clotting) of small and medium arteries and veins of the hands and feet. It is strongly associated with use of tobacco products, primarily from smoking, but also from smokeless tobacco.
A concrete diagnosis of thromboangiitis obliterans is often difficult as it relies heavily on exclusion of other conditions. The commonly followed diagnostic criteria are outlined below although the criteria tend to differ slightly from author to author. Olin (2000) proposes the following criteria:
Typically between 20–40 years old and male, although recently females have been diagnosed.
Current (or recent) history of tobacco use.
Presence of distal extremity ischemia (indicated by claudication, pain at rest, ischemic ulcers or gangrene) documented by noninvasive vascular testing such as ultrasound
Exclusion of other autoimmune diseases, hypercoagulable states, and diabetes mellitus by laboratory tests.
Exclusion of a proximal source of emboli by echocardiography and arteriography
Consistent arteriographic findings in the clinically involved and noninvolved limbs.
Buerger’s disease can be mimicked by a wide variety of other diseases that cause diminished blood flow to the extremities. These other disorders must be ruled out with an aggressive evaluation, because their treatments differ substantially from that of Buerger’s disease. For Buerger’s there is no treatment known to be effective.
Diseases with which Buerger’s disease may be confused include atherosclerosis (build-up of cholesterol plaques in the arteries), endocarditis (an infection of the lining of the heart), other types of vasculitis, severe Raynaud’s phenomenon associated with connective tissue disorders (e.g., lupus or scleroderma), clotting disorders of the blood, and others.
CT angiogram showing segmental stenosis of arteries of the lower leg (indicated by arrows)
Angiograms of the upper and lower extremities can be helpful in making the diagnosis of Buerger’s disease. In the proper clinical setting, certain angiographic findings are diagnostic of Buerger’s. These findings include a “corkscrew” appearance of arteries that result from vascular damage, particularly the arteries in the region of the wrists and ankles. Angiograms may also show occlusions (blockages) or stenosis (narrowings) in multiple areas of both the arms and legs. The changes are particularly apparent in the blood vessels in the lower right hand portion of the picture (the femoral artery distribution).
To rule out other forms of vasculitis (by excluding involvement of vascular regions atypical for Buerger’s), it is sometimes necessary to perform angiograms of other body regions (e.g., a mesenteric angiogram).
Skin biopsies of affected extremities are rarely performed because of the frequent concern that a biopsy site near an area poorly perfused with blood will not heal well.