Nutcracker Syndrome: A Simplified Approach With Gonadal Vein Transposition


The patient is a young woman in her twenties who developed severe right sided abdominal and back pain about 4 months prior to presentation associated with bouts of bloody urine. Activity and standing exacerbated her pain and inactivity and recumbency relieved it. She gained 15 pounds because of her inactivity. Examination was significant for tenderness over her left kidney. Urinanalysis showed positive proteinuria and hemaglobinuria.

Prior to consultation with me she had had an MR venogram showing compression of her left renal vein by the superior mesenteric artery (nutcracker phenomena). The presence of hematuria, proteinuria, and pain (albeit atypically right sided) made it nutcracker syndrome.

MRV color_Image006
Dilated left gonadal vein and pelvic varices indicate left renal vein (LRV) ouflow obstruction by the superior mesenteric artery (SMA)

I ordered a renal duplex and a CT venogram for procedural planning.


On the duplex, the proximal left renal vein (LRV) was not visualized. The right kidney had normal parenchymal appearance and blood flows, while the left, the kidney appeared distended and had flows consistent with outflow obstruction.

spectral kidneys
Spectral Doppler flows show respirophasicity in right renal vein(RRV), outflow obstruction on left renal vein (LRV)
Duplex kidneys bmode
The left kidney is swollen and tender.

CT Venography showed the gonadal vein to be an important outflow vessel to the left renal vein with dilated proximal segment and reflux into pelvic varices.


CTA processed_5CTA processed_4

A left gonadal vein to iliac vein transposition was planned via a left lower quadrant retroperitoneal exposure. On the table, a venogram was performed with selective access of the left renal vein.


The injection from the LRV showed severe compression of the LRV with a channel only slightly larger than the sheath and avid reflux into the gonadal vein. Selective access into the gonadal vein and venography from a confluence in the pelvis showed that flow was one way from the LRV into the gonadal vein and this filled a large region of pelvic varices.



The gonadal vein was large caliber and refluxed into two large veins in the pelvis. The one that fed the varices was not selected for transposition, but rather the longer straighter tributary. A catheter was left for easier identification during the dissection.

A left lower quadrant incision was made and a retroperitoneal dissection performed exposing the gonadal vein and iliac vein.




Prior to ligation of the tributaries, a sheath was inserted and through this a LeMaitre valvulotome was brought up to the left renal vein and carefully deployed and pulled back, cutting the valves. This greatly increased the outflow from the vein as evidenced by the height of the blood spout from the vein when the sheath was removed. The varices were ligated at their root -treating them definitively. Transposition was to the external iliac vein, and I could see the feasibility of a laparoscopic or robotic approach to this operation (ref 3).

Completion venography showed excellent flow from the LRV down the gonadal vein into the iliac venous system.


The patient lost less than 10mL of blood and was discharged on postop day 2. Gratifyingly, all of her preoperative pain resolved and her UA showed no more hemoglobinuria or proteinuria.


The described treatment options for nutcracker syndrome include (ref 1):

  1. Medical therapy aimed at decreasing renal venous hypertension (for hematuria)
  2. Renal autotransplantation
  3. Left renal vein transposition
  4. Left renal vein to vena cava bypass (autologous or PTFE)
  5. SMA transposition
  6. Nephrectomy
  7. Gonadal vein to IVC bypass
  8. Exovascular stenting (wrap of renal vein with ringed PTFE graft)
  9. Endovascular stenting

Many of the operations are of historic interest. Stenting deserves some comment. The patient self referred because she had read multiple reports of cardioembolization on internet support group comments. The largest nitinol stent (self expanding) available is 14mm. Wall stents in larger diameters are available, but are stiff, poorly conformable, and will elongate if constrained by a non-dilating stenosis like the external compression by the SMA. While acceptable results have been reported, the long term results (20-70 years) for younger patients is unknown. Migration is highly morbid, and usually to the heart, requiring sternotomy and cardiotomy to retrieve the stent. Optimally, a conforming 16-28mm self expanding stent should eventually become available, but conformability is typically inversely proportional to radial strength, and it is the less conformable stents that migrate. Work is ongoing to bring larger diameter nitinol stents for venous indications. The difference between May-Thurner Syndrome and Nutcracker syndrome isn’t merely the size of the veins and stents. The iliocaval confluence is relatively static with some movement of the lumbosacral joints and well suited for treatment with the relatively nonconforming Wall Stents. The left renal vein under the SMA is a very dynamic environment with motion of the SMA and the kidneys with respiration, ambulation, and activity leaving stents vulnerable early to migration and later to fracture.

The left renal vein transposition to the IVC is a nice operation with a good track record (ref 2). The downside is the long midline incision required with transperitoneal exposure. There is bleeding risk and postoperative complications of ileus, wound infection, and small bowel obstruction. Looking at the CTV, it seems obvious that the gonadal vein crosses over the iliac vein in the pelvis and would be a straightforward, less morbid, less invasive option. A review of the literature reveals only a single reference discussing three cases of left renal vein transposition (ref 3), and it was done with a surgical robot. I think that a laparoscopic approach would be simpler and less invasive and will consider developing this if volumes justify it. That said, the open retroperitoneal approach is very straightforward and well used exposure. Using venography to set up and then confirm the results of the transposition was helpful. I don’t think that measuring pressures and diameters and taking calipers to calculate stenoses is all that useful and in some instances a harmful method of justifying endovascular treatment of nutcracker phenomena in the absence of serious symptoms and a careful deliberate workup which includes a good history and physical, a UA, a duplex and CTV.

Intervening on the gonadal vein to iliac vein anastomosis should be straightforward from a groin or thigh venous access on the ipsilateral side. This operation doesn’t preclude any future interventions on the LRV. The pelvic varices were treated with direct ligation. The patient’s pain was successfully relieved in the short term.

Conclusion: Open retroperitoneal left gonadal vein to iliac vein transposition with gonadal vein valvulotomy is effecting in treating nutcracker syndrome.


  1. Kurklinsky AK, Rooke TW. Mayo Clin Proc. 2010 Jun; 85(6): 552–559.
  2. Reed NR et al. J Vasc Surg. 2009 Feb;49(2):386-93;
  3. White JV et al. J Vasc Surg Venous Lymphat Disord. 2016 Jan;4(1):114-8.


Drainage: the sewer guy knows more about veins than you would think


Being a homeowner, you are sometimes stuck negotiating a repair with various workmen whose knowledge of building esoterica is only exceeded by their subliminal contempt of a man who can’t rip out flooring and drywall to renovate a kitchen or bathroom. I can only hope that I don’t come off that way when discussing human plumbing. It was a year into my ownership of my current home that I noticed that many of the drains in the window wells were clogged. A very unpleasant afternoon was spent digging out soil and leaves while trying to snake a coat hanger (access wire), and when I gave up, I tried to call a plumber. Only it was the wrong specialist. “You want a sewer guy.”

The sewer gentleman was a meticulously groomed Italian immigrant who walked about the house after inspecting the drain in question. After some harumphing, he declared he needed to do some tests which included running dye through the various downspouts around the house and drains in the house. Contrast drainography! To top it off, he wanted to run a camera on a flexible tube through to check out the drains. Endoscopy! Plumbing, he sniffed, was easy, but drains were an art.

For the record, our basement was dry, but I could see the money meter whirring away. It was only a few weeks removed from a spring storm where several homes a few blocks away had catastrophic flooding when rains overwhelmed the capacity of their drainage –Drainage Insufficiency!

The testing was fine, but he ended up recommending resealing the entire East side of the house and rebuilding the window wells, because while the house was dry, it was compensating by rerouting a lot of drainage down gutters and the downsloping lawn to the street –Collaterals! and he couldn’t promise the house wouldn’t flood with a torrential month of rain which Shaker Heights is prone to being downwind of the Lake.

And it is with this wisdom that I see the increasing numbers of chronic venous occlusions. For example, the patient whose venogram is pictured above initially complained to her obstetrician of persistent heaviness in the pelvis and swelling of the legs after delivering a healthy baby. MRV showed abundant pelvic collateral veins and she was referred to me.

Our first test in our clinic is a venous duplex of both legs and the abdominal veins. There was an occlusion of the inferior vena cava below the renal veins extending the the iliac veins bilaterally. I am about to give a talk on this and I composited the ultrasound.


She had iliocaval occlusion, chronic. Her symptoms were over two years, and were ever worsening. She hadn’t developed permanent skin changes of chronic venous insufficiency, but probably would in a decade or sooner. I recommended venography and an attempt at recanalization.


The procedure went well, and her symptoms abated. For my trainees, the absence of collaterals in the after image is the sign that hemodynamically, the revascularization is the preferred route of egress. Surprisingly, this has stayed open over two years, but again, my exceedingly well paid sewer gentleman consultant, had something to say about it.

Drainage, he declared, was different from plumbing, because things move slower and there is usually solid matter -poop, leaves, dead birds, etc., to contend with. Larger, high volume drains do best with a direct in-line connection with the city sewer, while downspouts and window wells with their twists and turns and only occasional flushings clog up too well. Wise words.

It gave me a reason why iliocaval venous interventions did so much better than femoropopliteal ones.


Venous interventions connect confluences to the main drain, in most cases the suprarenal inferior vena cava. The iliocaval segment drains the common femoral confluence, which even in the worst of chronic lower extremity DVT’s, seems to reopen with several months of anticoagulation. Not the same for the popliteal confluence which, getting much less blood flow to drain, and having a smaller diameter, stents in the femoropopliteal veins just don’t do as well. Plus, it has to drain against a greater hydrostatic pressure. The drain guy’s wisdom seems to apply. It also has implications for the kind of stents we place, and the kinds that are being developed specifically for the venous side.


The student is now the master: IVC filter removal is easy until it is not, then it is very difficult

The inferior vena cava filter when it first invented by Dr. Greenfield was a minimally invasive solution that offered continued caval patency. The options up to then were ligation of the inferior vena cava using sutures or with an implantable plastic clip. The use of these filters exploded over the past 15 years corresponding to increasing recognition of venous thromboembolism as a morbid complication, the increasing numbers of implanters, and the introduction of retrievability.

Removing filters is a serious business because leaving them in for life is not inconsequential. Typically, the period of time that the filter are required for protection exceeds the limits of retrievability recommended on the instructions for use. It is not generally understood that many filters can be retrieved years after implantation, but it is not as simple as retrieval within a few months of implantation which can be done in under 30 minutes. In patients like the one in the illustrations, several years after implantation, the filter comes out only with some patience and a little help from friends.

The IVC filter is embedded in the right sided wall of the vena cava and the hook would not engage. From a right internal jugular vein, wire access to the filter was achieved and an 18F x40cm sheath was placed through which a 12Fx50cm sheath was placed. Through this, a floppy glide wire was directed above the struts of the filter, and it curved around and snaked under one of the far struts.

This allowed me to snare the wire and bring that out.

I placed another wire through the sheaths and removed the sheaths which were around both the Glidewire which was wrapped, and the second wire which was through. The sheaths were then replaced over that second wire, giving me room to maneuver I inside the 12F sheath. The first wire was then retracted with modest tension and it succeeded in lifting the hook away from the wall, allowing me to snare the hook through the sheaths.

Once the top of the device was securely in the 12F sheath, the first wire was removed and the filter was removed.

The retrieval of an IVC filter device within the parameters of IFU (instructions for use) is like level one of a video game. Challenging for the novice, but eminently doable. The retrieval of these filters left in for years is more like level 25 of the same video game. The nice thing is having friends who can give you tips on defeating that level.

At VEITH symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Paul Foley presented data and technical details on removing these filters, and this has been enthusiastically taken up by my partner Dr. Christopher Smolock who happened to be walking the halls the day of that case. His tip: “18F Sheath over 12F sheath, tilt the filter, and capture,” he said. “Wasn’t Foley your resident back at Columbia (in 2004)?” he added.

“Yes…” I replied.

“Now the student has become the master,” quoting Darth Vader. Which was fine with me because that made me Obi Wan Kenobi, which isn’t too bad. The great privilege of being a teacher is having that go around full circle. Or as Vader said, “The circle is now complete.”


A Palma Procedure for SVC Syndrome


The enthusiasm for stenting has driven the misplacement of many well intended stents. The problem with stents in the central veins is three fold. First, the typically large stent chosen for placement in the SVC, the Wall Stent, by design expands while shortening but maintains a uniform diameter. If deployed partially in the subclavian vein, it remains constrained at the smaller diameter and far longer than intended. The other problem is that while ballooning can be done repeatedly, once they are in, stents limit how much can be ballooned as material grows and accumulates rapidly in the stent. There are no FDA approved devices for debulking this material on the venous side (I have asked the laser folks if anyone has used -no). The third challenge is deploying or embolizing into the heart, and this often requires a sternotomy or thoracotomy to retrieve the wayward stent. Unfortunately, you can’t compress the head like you can the legs, and these patients have overloaded their remaining drainage even with 24 hr upright posture. Spandex Lucha Libre masks would not treat the cerebral edema that causes intense headaches and neurotic symptoms.

This patient began his problems with effort thrombosis and hypercoagulability, found and treated in his home institution. He underwent first rib resection and stenting, but he rapidly thrombosed his stent despite anticoagulation, and this resulted in more stents until he had stents deployed across the confluence of the left and right brachiocephalic veins. This inevitably occluded and he developed SVC syndrome. He underwent two open bypasses first with vein then with PTFE by his local surgeons but these occluded. When he came, he had the swollen face and conjunctival edema of someone suffering from SVC syndrome. He had been told that there was no more that could be done and he would likely die within the year. He decided to seek a second opinion and made the long trip to the Clinic.

The ultrasound and CT showed his stents to be closed, but even after I opened his stents basically by ballooning and putting in more stents (10mm), he still had symptoms. This required an imaginative solution. IVUS by the way is important in these procedures.

The procedure to open the subclavian to SVC stents was done via the cephalic vein which was large and patent. Duplex of his neck revealed dilated internal jugular veins and it struck me that I had a good a chance at draining the head with a transposition of the cephalic vein to the IJV.

The challenge was how to tunnel this -above or below the clavicle. It was not entirely obvious because the superficial tunnel would be subject to compression while the subclavicular route was likely heavily scarred and subject to compression and kinking after turning upward.

I chose to tunnel over the clavicle and confirm a good turn of the vein by sending a catheter and wire through it and shooting venograms. The vein was taken from the antecubital fossa up to the shoulder. It was exposed, marked in situ, mobilized, flipped and tunneled to the neck where the IJV was dissected. It was anastomosed to a generous venotomy created with multiple applications of a 5mm aortic punch.


This immediately relieved his symptoms, and he did well for about 6 months when he called urgently and drove in because his symptoms had returned. I thought he had closed his transposed vein, but duplex showed that it was his stents that had closed, and that his vein had stayed open. I reintervened on the stent via the brachia veins and his symptoms resolved again, and he remains happy and providing for his family. He will be due for his 1 year followup soon.