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von Willebrand Disease Workup

  • Author: Eleanor S Pollak, MD; Chief Editor: Srikanth Nagalla, MBBS, MS, FACP  more...
Updated: Dec 09, 2015

Approach Considerations

Laboratory studies are directed towards documenting a deficiency of von Willebrand factor (vWF).[8, 9, 11] levels of vWF vary with physiologic stress; in particular, plasma levels increase with estrogens, vasopressin, growth hormone, and adrenergic stimuli. Thus, vWF levels may intermittently be normal in patients with von Willebrand disease (vWD), and measurements should be repeated to confirm abnormal results.

Repeating tests at intervals of more than 2 weeks is advisable to confirm or definitively exclude the diagnosis of vWD. Optimally, testing should occur at a time remote from events that may raise vWF levels, such as pregnancy, infection, surgery, and strenuous exercise.

Screening tests typically include the following:

  • Prothrombin time (PT)
  • Activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT)
  • Factor VIII coagulant activity
  • Ristocetin cofactor (RCoF) activity
  • Concentration of vWF antigen (vWF:Ag)

Levels of vWF correlate with ABO blood type. Individuals with type O blood normally have the lowest levels of vWF, approximately 50-75% of the vWF levels found in persons with other blood types. vWF levels should be compared with an ABO blood group type-specific range from the laboratory where the test is performed.


Evaluation of vWF Level and Function

vWF Activity

vWF activity (the binding of VWF to platelet glycoprotein Ib [GPIb]) has traditionally been assessed by ristocetin cofactor (RCoF) activity. In this test, ristocetin is added to a suspension of washed formalin- or paraformaldehyde-fixed platelets in the presence of the patient's plasma (as a source of vWF). The rate of aggregation is then measured using an aggregometer, a device specifically designed to monitor this activity.

The test for RCoF activity is good for evaluating vWF function, although results are difficult to standardize and the test is difficult to perform. Thus, the validity of test results should be verified when the test is performed at centers with personnel who are not accustomed to performing this test.

Normal RCoF values are 50-200 IU/dL. A level below 30 IU/dL is considered definitive for vWD, although levels of 30-50 IU/dL may be found in some patients with type I or II vWD.[8]

Some recently developed vWF activity assays use gain-of-function GPIbα mutants that bind vWF without the need for ristocetin. This provides better precision and a lower limit of detection. These assays avoid the falsely low readings than can occur with ristocetin-dependent methods in patients with some common vWF polymorphisms that do not cause bleeding.[12]


This assay is usually performed (with rabbit antibody to vWF) using either a quantitative immunoassay or an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. A discrepancy between the vWF:Ag value and RCoF activity suggests a qualitative defect that should be further investigated by characterization of the vWF multimeric distribution. As with RCoF, a vWF:Ag level below 30 IU/dL is considered diagnostic of vWD, but levels of 30-50 IU/dL may be found in some patients with type 1 or 2 vWD.[8]


Bleeding Time, PT, and aPTT

Bleeding time

Historically, the template bleeding time was a test used to help diagnose vWD. However, this test is subject to wide variation and, with the availability of tests that provide more specific results, is not currently essential for making the diagnosis.

A prolonged bleeding time is not specific for vWD and does not help to predict whether patients without a bleeding disorder will have problematic bleeding during surgery. The test is difficult to perform, and results are difficult to confirm (ie, poor reproducibility); results frequently are normal in patients with vWD type I.

PT and aPTT

The aPTT is mildly prolonged in approximately 50% of patients with vWD. The prolongation is secondary to low levels of FVIII because one of the normal functions of vWF is to protect FVIII from degradation.

The PT should be within reference ranges. Prolongations of both the PT and the aPTT signal a problem with acquisition of a proper specimen or the presence of a disorder other than or in addition to vWD.


Workup by Type

vWD type I

vWD type I can be diagnosed in a patient with significant mucocutaneous bleeding, laboratory test results compatible with vWD type I, and a positive family history for vWD type I. However, these criteria may be impossible to satisfy in many patients for various reasons. Therefore, physicians must acknowledge this diagnostic uncertainty and should not deny patients treatment, especially when patients' laboratory test results are compatible with vWD type I and the patients have either a significant history of mucocutaneous bleeding or a positive family history for vWD type I.

A less common problem is the misdiagnosis of vWD type I in patients who actually have a qualitative defect. The results of screening tests recommended for patients with vWD type I often show proportionally decreased RCoF activity and vWF:Ag in patients with vWD type IIB, although classic teaching is that a discrepancy should exist between the 2 tests. In this scenario, ristocetin-induced platelet aggregation test results should demonstrate an exaggerated affinity of the mutant vWF for platelets in the presence of ristocetin.

vWD type II

Disproportionately low RCoF activity relative to vWF:Ag may reflect a decreased affinity of vWF for platelets. The most common cause of such loss of function is the absence of hemostatically effective large vWF multimers, characteristic of vWD type IIA. This subtype is diagnosed based on the combination of markedly reduced RCoF activity and compatible multimer gel analysis results.

In type IIB, brisk platelet agglutination occurs at low concentrations of ristocetin that have little or no effect on platelet-rich plasma from normal controls. Similar results are seen in one extremely rare disease, platelet-type vWD. In platelet-type vWD, mutations in platelet GpIb cause a phenotype similar to that of vWD type IIB.

vWD type IIM includes variants in which binding to platelets is impaired but the vWF multimer distribution is normal. Screening laboratory test findings are similar to those found in vWD type IIA, but multimer gel analysis results show that large multimers are present.

In vWD type IIN, the platelet-dependent functions of vWF are preserved, but FVIII levels are low (often < 10%). This condition is an autosomal mimic of hemophilia A, and a careful family history helps to distinguish the 2 disorders.

Multimeric examination of vWF is particularly important in the diagnosis of vWD type II. Results from this laboratory test reveal the multimeric distribution of vWF, thus allowing classification of type II disease based on the specific absence of large multimers (type IIB) or both intermediate and large (type IIA) multimers.

vWD type III

This is a recessive disorder in which vWF protein is virtually undetectable. The absence of vWF causes a secondary deficiency of FVIII and a subsequent severe combined defect in blood clotting and platelet adhesion. Results from screening assays show both absent or severely decreased RCoF activity and vWF:Ag in addition to a prolonged aPTT.

Low vWF

Guidelines from the National Institutes of Health and the United Kingdom recommend that the term "low vWF" rather than vWD be used to designate patients with an appropriate bleeding history and RCoF/vWF:Ag levels of 30-50 IU/dL.[8, 2] Such patients may nevertheless be candidates for treatment to increase vWF levels when they are at risk for bleeding.[8]


Testing for Therapeutic Options

A laboratory evaluation of a patient's response to administrations of desmopressin (DDAVP) is commonly performed to assess whether or not a patient can receive this product either therapeutically or prophylactically before surgery.

Perform a laboratory evaluation to rule out whether the patient has vWD type IIB prior to testing, in patients with risk factors for thrombotic complications, because case reports suggest this drug may be contraindicated in this setting.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Eleanor S Pollak, MD Associate Director of Special Coagulation, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Section of Hematology and Coagulation, University of Pennsylvania

Eleanor S Pollak, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Hematology, College of American Pathologists, National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Srikanth Nagalla, MBBS, MS, FACP Director, Clinical Hematology, Cardeza Foundation for Hematologic Research; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Associate Program Director, Hematology/Medical Oncology Fellowship, Assistant Program Director, Internal Medicine Residency, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Srikanth Nagalla, MBBS, MS, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Hematology, Association of Specialty Professors

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Marcel E Conrad, MD (Retired) Distinguished Professor of Medicine, University of South Alabama

Marcel E Conrad, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Blood Banks, American Chemical Society, American College of Physicians, American Physiological Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, American Society of Hematology, Association of American Physicians, Association of Military Surgeons of the US, International Society of Hematology, Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, and Southwest Oncology Group

Disclosure: No financial interests None None

Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP Paul Dishner Endowed Chair of Excellence in Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Chief of Hematology-Oncology, Program Director, Hematology-Oncology Fellowship, James H Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University

Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Society of Hematology, and Royal College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Steven Stein, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, University of Pennsylvania

Steven Stein, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine and American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Reference Salary Employment

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