PURPOSE: After catheterization, 42% to 100% of central venous catheters are surrounded by a "fibrin sleeve." This sleeve has been considered the cause of catheter-related infections, withdrawal occlusion, and pulmonary embolism. The reactions between the vein wall and the catheter were studied. METHODS: A silicone catheter was placed in the anterior caval vein of 123 rats. After in situ fixation at scheduled intervals, the pathologic changes were studied on semi-serial histologic sections by means of light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). In 36 rats, the catheter was withdrawn immediately; in 72 rats, it was left in situ up to 6 months; and in 15 rats, the study was performed up to 10 months after withdrawal of a catheter that had remained in situ for 6 months. RESULTS: In the group in which the catheter was withdrawn immediately, mural thrombi disappeared by day 7. In the group in which the catheter remained in situ, thrombi remained around the proximal portion of the catheter. This pericatheter thrombosis (PCT) was invaded by migrating and proliferating smooth muscle cells (SMCs), originating from an injured vein wall, and transformed from day 7 into a tissue composed predominantly of SMCs and collagen and covered by endothelial cells. Later, the number of cells decreased, and the relative amount of collagen increased. Up to 10 months after withdrawal of the catheter, the collapsed sleeve was still present within the vein. CONCLUSION: The sleeve around a central venous catheter is not a fibrin sleeve, but a stable cellular-collagen tissue covered by endothelium. It is mainly formed by smooth muscle cells migrating from the injured vein wall into the early pericatheter thrombus.