Subcutaneous unfractionated heparin for the initial treatment of venous thromboembolism

Background
Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a condition where a blood clot forms in the deep veins (most commonly of the leg) and can travel up to block the arteries in the lungs (a life-threatening condition known as pulmonary embolism). Treating VTE requires injections of a drug called heparin, which stops further clots forming. Heparin comes in two forms: unfractionated heparin (UFH) and low molecular weight heparin (LMWH). UFH can be administered as a continuous intravenous (IV) infusion or intermittently as an injection under the skin (subcutaneous), while LMWH is injected subcutaneously. This review measures the effects of subcutaneous UFH versus IV UFH and LMWH for preventing recurrent clots, mortality and major bleeding. This is an update of a review published in 2009.

Key results
After searching for relevant studies up to November 2016, we found one study to add to this update. In total, we included 16 randomised controlled trials in 3593 participants in this review. This update showed that there was no evidence of a difference between subcutaneous UFH versus intravenous UFH or subcutaneous LMWH for preventing recurrent clots, death or major bleeding.

Quality of the evidence
The quality of the evidence was low due to lack of blinding in the included studies and imprecision of the results due to the small number of reported events.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is no evidence of a difference between subcutaneous versus intravenous UFH for preventing VTE recurrence, VTE-related or all-cause mortality, and major bleeding. According to GRADE criteria, the quality of the evidence was low. There is also no evidence of a difference between subcutaneous UFH and LMWH for preventing VTE recurrence, VTE-related or all-cause mortality or major bleeding.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a prevalent and serious condition. Its medical treatment requires anticoagulation, usually with either unfractionated or low molecular weight heparin (LMWH). Administration of unfractionated heparin (UFH) is usually intravenous (IV) but can be subcutaneous as well. This is an update of a review first published in 2009.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of subcutaneous UFH versus intravenous UFH, subcutaneous LMWH or any other anticoagulant drug for the initial treatment of venous thromboembolism.

Search strategy: 

For this update, the Cochrane Vascular Information Specialist searched the Specialised Register (last searched 30 November 2016) and CENTRAL (2016, Issue 10). The Cochrane Vascular Information Specialist also searched trials registries for details of ongoing or unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials comparing subcutaneous UFH to control, such as subcutaneous LMWH, continuous intravenous UFH or other anticoagulant drugs in participants with acute venous thromboembolism.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors (JS and LR) independently extracted data and assessed the risk of bias in the trials. We used meta-analyses when we considered heterogeneity low. The primary outcomes were symptomatic recurrent venous thromboembolism (deep vein thrombosis and/or pulmonary embolism), VTE-related mortality, adverse effects of treatment including major bleeding, and all-cause mortality. We calculated all outcomes using an odds ratio (OR) with a 95% confidence interval (CI).

Main results: 

We included one additional study in this update, bringing the total number of studies in the review to 16 randomised controlled trials, with a total of 3593 participants (1745 participants in the intervention group and 1848 participants in the control group). Eight trials used intravenous UFH as the control treatment, seven trials used LMWH, and one trial had three arms with both drugs as the controls. We did not identify trials comparing subcutaneous UFH with other anticoagulant drugs. We downgraded the quality of the evidence to low due to lack of blinding in studies, which led to a risk of performance bias, and also for imprecision, as reflected by the wide confidence intervals.

When comparing subcutaneous versus IV UFH, there was no difference in the incidence of symptomatic recurrent VTE at three months (odds ratio (OR) 1.66, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.89 to 3.10; 8 studies; N = 965; low-quality evidence), symptomatic recurrent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) at three months (OR 3.29, 95% CI 0.64 to 17.06; 1 study; N = 115; low-quality evidence), pulmonary embolism (PE) at three months (OR 1.44, 95% CI 0.73 to 2.84; 9 studies; N = 1161; low-quality evidence), VTE-related mortality at three months (OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.20 to 4.88; 9 studies; N = 1168; low-quality evidence), major bleeding (OR 0.91, 95% CI 0.42 to 1.97; 4 studies; N = 583; low-quality evidence) or all-cause mortality (OR 1.74, 95% CI 0.67 to 4.51; 8 studies; N = 972; low-quality evidence). There were no episodes of asymptomatic VTE occurring within three months of the commencement of treatment.

When comparing subcutaneous UFH versus LMWH, there was no difference in the incidence of recurrent VTE at three months (OR 1.01, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.63; 5 studies; N = 2156; low-quality evidence), recurrent DVT at three months (OR 1.38, 95% CI 0.73 to 2.63; 3 studies; N = 1566; low-quality evidence), PE (OR 0.84, 95% CI 0.36 to 1.96; 5 studies, N = 1819; low-quality evidence), VTE-related mortality (OR 0.53, 95% CI 0.17 to 1.67; 8 studies; N = 2469; low-quality evidence), major bleeding (OR 0.72, 95% CI 0.43 to 1.20; 5 studies; N = 2300; low-quality evidence) or all-cause mortality (OR 0.73, 95% CI 0.50 to 1.07; 7 studies; N = 2272; low-quality evidence). There were no episodes of asymptomatic VTE occurring within three months of the commencement of treatment.

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