What causes jugular vein distention?

Jugular vein distention is an indirect indicator of the pressure in the right atrium, the heart chamber that receives blood from the body. Increases in blood volume, or anything that interferes with filling of the heart or movement of the blood within the heart from the right atrium to the right ventricle, can increase the central venous pressure.

Common causes of jugular vein distention

Jugular vein distention may be caused by heart conditions and conditions that affect blood vessels including:

  • Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
  • Constrictive pericarditis (infection or inflammation of the lining that surrounds the heart that decreases the lining’s flexibility)
  • Hypervolemia (increased blood volume)
  • Superior vena cava obstruction (blockage of the main vein of the upper body that returns blood to the heart; the jugular veins empty into this vein)
  • Tricuspid valve stenosis (narrowing of the valve between the right atrium and the right ventricle)

Serious or life-threatening causes of jugular vein distention

In some cases, jugular vein distention may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Acute decompensated heart failure (rapid deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
  • Cardiac tamponade (filling of the sac around the heart with blood or other fluid)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of jugular vein distention

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your jugular vein distention including:

  • When did you first notice jugular vein distention?
  • Do you have a history of heart, lung, kidney or liver problems?
  • Have you gained weight recently?
  • Have you noticed swelling anywhere?
  • Do you have shortness of breath?
  • Do you have chest pain?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of jugular vein distention?

Because jugular vein distention can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm)
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Heart failure
  • Progressive weakness and fatigue


  1. Techniques: jugular venous pressure measurement (JVP). University of Washington Department of Medicine.  http://depts.washington.edu/physdx/neck/tech1.html.
  2. Measuring central venous pressure with a triple-lumen catheter.  American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.  http://ccn.aacnjournals.org/content/32/3/62.full.

What is jugular vein distention?

The jugular veins carry blood from the head to the superior vena cava (the main vein of the upper body), which empties into the heart. The external jugular vein is closest to the skin and can sometimes be seen as a rope-like bulge on the side of the neck. Bulging of the external jugular vein is known as jugular vein distention.

... Read more about jugular vein distentionintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with jugular vein distention?

Jugular vein distention may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the blood vessels, heart, and fluid volume may also involve other body systems.

Circulatory symptoms that may occur along with jugular vein distention

Jugular vein distention may accompany other symptoms affecting the... Read more about jugular vein distentionsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 2, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation