Cephalic Vein

Also called the antecubital vein, the cephalic vein is one of the 2 major superficial or shallow veins present in the arm of humans and extends from the shoulder to the wrist. It may be noted that veins situated near the skin’s surface are known as superficial veins. The cephalic veins passes through near the shoulder at the upper end of the arm via a groove occurring between the pectoralis and deltoid major muscles. It may be present at different depths in different people. Superficial veins are often noticeable as bluish grey lines on many persons.

The arms contain many different kinds of veins which along with the capillaries create a network to take the blood back towards the heart. The basilica vein, which is the other major shallow vein in the arm, moves parallel to the cephalic vein. The two are connected together by the median cubital vein.

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After the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, veins transfer the deoxygenated and waste-abundant blood back to the heart. Such low-oxygen-content blood may be dark reddish or even maroon in color. The vein appears to be bluish gray as the skin tends to refract light. Veins contain valves which act as locks or gates in a canal. They overcome the effects of gravity and make sure that the blood always flows in the same manner and direction, i.e., back into the heart.

Blood samples are usually extracted and collected from the veins present in the arms. Application of a tourniquet on the arm slows down the blood slow, thereby expanding the vein and making it more visible. The median cubital vein is usually the source of blood specimens, while the cephalic vein is often used for IV administration in hospital settings.

Blood flows from different parts of the body back to the heart via the veins while oxygenated blood from the heart is carried all over the body via arteries. These two vessels do not intersect, but doctors may make a connection between a nearby artery and the cephalic vein for facilitating the process of dialysis in people with kidney diseases.

The term ‘cephalic’ is derived from the Arabic stem al-kifal which means outer, thereby referring to the location of the vein on the arm. The word ‘cephalicus’ in Latin is related to the head. At the time of translating the word into Medieval Latin, it was erroneously done using the ‘cephalic’ Latin word.

The cephalic vein: Structure, Functions, and Uses

cephalic vein

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  • The cephalic vein is located on the arm and runs laterally on the side from the shoulder to the hand. It gets into the tissues and attaches to the axillary vein in the shoulder, thereby turning into the subclavian vein and connecting to the superior vena cava. The medial cubital vein juts out from the cephalic vein in the elbow’s bend and runs onwards towards the basilic vein. At the elbow, the cephalic vein uses the median cubital vein to communicate with the basilic vein and is situated in the superficial fascia across the front-lateral surface of the brachii muscle of the biceps.
    • The cephalic vein superiorly passes between the pectoralis and deltoid main muscles along the deltopectoral groove and via the deltopectoral triangle, eventually emptying into the axillary vein.
  • In most cases, the cephalic vein can be seen through the skin with a fairly consistent location in the deltopectoral groove, thereby making it an ideal site for access to the vein.
    • A big bore cannula can be placed without difficulties in the cephalic vein; hence it is sometimes called the ‘’House-man’s Friend’. It may however be noted that cephalic vein cannulation comes with the risk of nerve damage as it is located close to the radial nerve.
    • During hemodialysis, doctors may connect the subcutaneous vein over the elbow to the brachial artery to form a bracheocephalic fistula, thereby ensuring greater blood flow. Also known as cephalic vein transposition, this procedure is usually carried out in case of trauma or hemorrhage.
    • Often, the leads of a permanent artificial pacemaker are put in the deltopectoral groove in the cephalic vein.
    • Doctors may place small, flexible, tubular venous access devices in the cephalic vein for blood components transfusion; intravenous administration of nutritional compounds, fluids, and medications; and extracting or withdrawing blood specimens for diagnostic tests.

Cephalic vein – Thrombosis

  • Also called by varied names like phlebitis, vein thrombosis, and thrombophlebitis, cephalic vein thrombosis is a condition marked by inflammation of the vein which in turn is caused due to formation of a blood clot. Subsequently, if the antecubital vein gets inflamed as well, then it can cause life-threatening conditions requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Cephalic vein thrombosis is considered as superficial thrombophlebitis. It is different from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which affects the veins occurring deeper in the limbs.
  • People with cephalic vein thrombosis may suffer from varied discomforting and painful symptoms in the affected arms in addition to inflammation. Superficial cephalic vein thrombosis may cause cord-shaped reddish vein along with tenderness or swelling. DVT usually causes overall swelling of a limb along with warmth and redness. Severe DVT can result in additional symptoms like breathlessness and fever.
  • Certain conditions like cancers and blood vessel injuries as well as prolonged immobility can increase the risk to blood clot development. For example, people who are bedridden after surgery are vulnerable to developing blood clots. Sitting for prolonged periods in an airplane or a car can restrict the flow of blood across the body, particularly the limbs, thereby increasing the risk to blood clot development.
  • Any kind of persistent pain in legs or arms needs to be checked by a doctor. Tests such as venography, blood test, and ultrasound will help confirm a diagnosis of cephalic vein thrombosis.
  • Mild instances of cephalic vein thrombosis can be alleviated via heat application to decrease inflammation, elevation of the affected arm, and use of support stockings.
    • NSAIDs and other painkillers may be given to ease swelling and pain, while blood-thinning medicines can help prevent the aggravation of blood clots as well as block the development of new clots.
    • Severe cases that affect circulation may need to be corrected via surgery.
    • Stretching, drinking lots of water, and walking can help prevent future cases of cephalic vein thrombosis.


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