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Fifty-seven patients who presented to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford, with critical upper limb ischaemia between 1980 and 1989 were studied. Only 13 patients had emboli, while 23 presented with arteritis, seven involving large vessels and 16 with small vessel disease. Other causes included nine patients with trauma, six with atherosclerosis (of whom five were women), and four with vascular complications of thoracic outlet obstruction. Single examples of ischaemia due to radiation fibrosis and disseminated intravascular coagulation were also seen. Critical ischaemia of the upper limb remains an uncommon yet challenging problem. The review demonstrates that total limb arteriography should be performed in all patients, except the minority who present with direct arterial trauma or classical emboli.