Nutcracker syndrome

Nutcracker syndrome is a vascular compression disorder that refers to the compression of the left renal vein most commonly between the superior mesenteric artery (SMA) and aorta, although other variations can exist 1. This can lead to renal venous hypertension, resulting in rupture of thin-walled veins into the collecting system with resultant hematuria.

In certain situations, the syndrome can result from a retroaortic or circumaortic left renal vein.

Nutcracker syndrome should not be confused with superior mesenteric artery syndrome (Wilkie syndrome) also a superior mesenteric artery compression disorder, where the SMA compresses the third part of the duodenum (the two conditions, however, may be associated).

There is a slightly greater female predilection.

The most common clinical manifestations of nutcracker syndrome are left flank pain, pelvic pain, hematuria and gonadal varices. Orthostatic proteinuria has also been reported. Hematuria can be microscopic or macroscopic. Hematuria should be from the left ureteric orifice only 4. In the absence of clinical symptoms, renal vein compression is referred to as Nutcracker phenomenon (with can be a more common situation).

  • may occur simultaneously with SMA syndrome
  • an association with a thin or asthenic body habitus has long been noted.

Compression of the left renal vein can occur primarily in two anatomic locations 10.

Radiographic features are similar on ultrasound, Doppler ultrasound, CT, MRI, and conventional angiography: 

For classical form

  • reduced aortic-SMA angle: normal angle between aorta and SMA is ~45° (range 38-65°)
  • left renal vein stenosis
  • collateral pathways: main collateral pathway is the left gonadal vein which will display early enhancement during portal venous phase
  • pressure gradient >3 mm Hg on renal venography in early stage nutcracker syndrome. Well developed collateral veins dissipate the high-pressure gradient
  • compression ratio (CR) given by the equation CR=P-C/C
    • i.e. diameter of pre-compressed vein (P) minus diameter of compressed vein (C) divided by the diameter of the compressed vein (C).
    • a compression ratio above 2.25 is highly sensitive and specific for Nutcracker syndrome 10

Persistent hematuria can precipitate renal vein thrombosis 4.

Treatment should be started strictly when it is causing symptoms (hematuria and left flank pain). Surgical treatment modalities have their inherent complications and should be contemplated only when strongly indicated. A few of the reported surgical choices are:

  • left renal vein transposition 5
  • kidney autotransplant
  • superior mesenteric artery transposition
  • gonadal vein transposition
  • nephrectomy
  • extravascular stent placement
  • endovascular stent-graft placement 6

The first clinical report of this syndrome was made by El-Sadr and Mina in 1950 while the term "nutcracker syndrome" is thought to have been first used by de Schepper in 1972 7.

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Article information

rID: 1745
Section: Syndromes
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Posterior nutcracker phenomenon syndrome
  • Renal vein entrapment syndrome
  • Left renal vein entrapment syndrome

Cases and figures

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    Case 1
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  • Case 2
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  • Case 5
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  • Case 6
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  • Case 7: with concomitant SMA syndrome
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  • Case 8
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