Central Venous Access via Supraclavicular Approach to Subclavian Vein

Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Author: E Jedd Roe, lll, MD, MBA, MSF, FAAEM, FACEP; Chief Editor: Vincent Lopez Rowe, MD, FACS 



First described by Aubaniac in 1952, central venous catheterization, or central line placement, is a time-honored and tested technique for quickly accessing the major venous system. Benefits over peripheral access include greater longevity without infection, line security in situ, avoidance of phlebitis, larger lumens, multiple lumens for rapid administration of combinations of drugs, a route for nutritional support, fluid administration, and central venous pressure (CVP) monitoring. Central vein catheterization is also referred to as central line placement.

Overall complication rates are as high as 15%,[1, 2, 3, 4]  with mechanical complications reported in 5-19% of patients,[5, 6, 7]  infectious complications in 5-26%,[1, 2, 4]  and thrombotic complications in 2-26%.[1, 8]  These complications are all potentially life-threatening and invariably consume significant resources to treat.

Placement of a central vein catheter is a common procedure, and house staff require substantial training and supervision to become facile with this technique. A physician should have a thorough foreknowledge of the procedure and its complications before placing a central vein catheter.

The supraclavicular approach was first put into clinical practice in 1965 and is an underused method for gaining central access. It offers several advantages over the infraclavicular approach to the subclavian vein.[9] At the insertion site, the subclavian vein is closer to the skin, and the right-side approach offers a straighter path into the subclavian vein. In addition, this site is often more accessible during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and during active surgical cases. Finally, in patients who are obese, this anatomic area is less distorted.


Indications for obtaining central venous access via the supraclavicular approach to the subclavian vein include the following:

  • Volume resuscitation
  • Emergency venous access
  • Nutritional support
  • Administration of caustic medications (eg, vasopressors)
  • CVP monitoring
  • Transvenous pacing wire introduction
  • Hemodialysis

This approach may be usable as an alternative for placement of cannulae for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).[10]


Absolute contraindications for central venous access include the following:

  • Distorted anatomy (eg, from vascular injury, prior surgery, or previous exposure to radiation)
  • Infection at the insertion site

Relative contraindications for central venous access include the following:

  • Presence of anticoagulation or a bleeding disorder
  • Patient who is excessively underweight or overweight
  • Uncooperative patient
  • Current or possible thrombolysis

Absolute contraindications for the supraclavicular approach include the following:

  • Trauma to the ipsilateral clavicle, neck, or subclavian vessel
  • Coagulopathy (direct pressure to stop bleeding cannot be applied to the subclavian vein or artery, because of these structures' location beneath the clavicle)

Relative contraindications for the supraclavicular approach include the following:

Technical Considerations

Whereas ultrasonographic (US) guidance has proved to be a useful adjunct for internal jugular vein cannulation, its use for subclavian routes has not been as commonly studied. The anatomy of the supraclavicular approach affords relatively little room for effectively positioning the transducer while manipulating the needle. A number of reports, however, have suggested that this application of US guidance is feasible and safe.[11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17]  Using an ultrasound transducer to locate and superficially mark the vessel before needle insertion is an option.[18]


Nevarre et al published a review of the literature and his own series of 178 supraclavicular line placements. He reported one pneumothorax, one malposition, and two instances of inability to thread the wire. The overall complication rate was 0.56%. This site is likely among the safest approaches for central venous access.[5]  (Note, however, that an experienced surgeon performed the procedures reported by Nevarre.)

A study by Muhm et al of 208 supraclavicular lines in 168 hemodialysis patients focused on large-bore catheters such as may be needed for hemodialysis or resuscitation of patients with trauma or sepsis. Complications included one pneumothorax, seven arterial punctures, and two thoracic duct punctures without sequelae. Catheter malpositions occurred only sporadically (1%). Thus, even with large-bore catheters, the supraclavicular approach may be a preferable route of placement.[6]

Czarnik et al reported a high overall success rate (92%) for the supraclavicular approach in 370 patients. Most of the patients (78.4%) were mechanically ventilated during the procedure, and the overall complication rate was 1.7%, including three subclavian artery punctures and three contralateral subclavian vein catheterizations. No life-threatening complications occurred. The authors noted this approach to be another viable site for venous access, even in those being mechanically ventilated.[19]

These studies were encouraging, especially given that a large percentage of the studied patients represented a situation in which the line placement was complicated or difficult. However, the numbers of patients included were small, and the operators were experienced with this technique.

In a meta-analysis of eight randomized controlled trials, Chen et al we evaluated the success rate and complication rate of subclavian venous catheterization performed via the supraclavicular versus the traditional infraclavicular approach.[20]  Primary outcome measures were cannulation failure rate and incidence of malposition; secondary outcome measures were cannulation access time and incidence of pneumothorax and artery puncture. Primary outcomes were superior with the supraclavicular approach; secondary outcomes were not significantly different.


Periprocedural Care

Patient Education and Consent

Before the procedure, a discussion should be held with the patient to explain the procedure, in particular with regard to its benefits, risks, and complications. Signed informed consent must be obtained.

Preprocedural Planning

Needle insertion site options include the following:

  • Insertion 1 cm lateral to the lateral border of the clavicular head of the sternocleidomastoid and 1 cm superior to the clavicle; the needle approach should bisect the angle of the muscle border and the clavicle
  • Insertion 1 cm medial and 1 cm superior to the midpoint of the clavicle (see the image below); the introducer needle should be directed to the ipsilateral sternoclavicular joint [21]
  • Insertion just posterior to the clavicle at the middle/medial third junction of the clavicle; the needle should be directed toward the ipsilateral sternoclavicular joint, oriented parallel to the coronal plain [22]
Anatomy for approach to subclavian vein. Anatomy for approach to subclavian vein.

Options for directing the needle include the following:

  • Contralateral nipple - The contralateral nipple may be used as a target for directing the introducer needle
  • Sternal notch - A point just superior and posterior to the sternal notch may be used as a target for directing the introducer needle

In the technique first described by Yoffa in 1965, the needle is directed at an angle of 45º from the sagittal plane and 15º anteriorly from the coronal plane. Studies using three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) have obtained higher success rates by placing the needle at the clavisternomastoid angle and directing the needle 10º from the sagittal plane and 35º posteriorly from the coronal plane. This change yields the shortest distance to the target vessel and allows the first rib to act as a physical barrier to reduce the risk of pneumothorax.[23]


Equipment used in obtaining central venous access via the supraclavicular approach to the subclavian vein includes the following (see the image below):

  • Central venous catheter tray (line kit)
  • Sterile gloves
  • Antiseptic solution with skin swabs
  • Sterile drapes or towels
  • Sterile gown
  • Sterile saline flush, approximately 30 mL
  • Lidocaine 1% (obtain additional vial of lidocaine 1%, if needed) - Because the amount of lidocaine provided in most line kits is often inadequate, the authors recommend supplementing the kit with a 10-mL syringe and a bottle of 1% lidocaine without epinephrine
  • Gauze
  • Dressing
  • Scalpel, No. 11
Central venous catheter equipment. Image courtesy Central venous catheter equipment. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some clinicians find it useful to remove the contents of the line kit and lay them out in the order and configuration that they will be used. Equipment should never be placed on a patient.

Antibiotic ointments are contraindicated. Transparent dressings are not necessary.

Patient Preparation


Local anesthesia using 1% lidocaine is required. For more information, see Local Anesthetic Agents, Infiltrative Administration. Anesthetize the suture site as well as the insertion site.


Place the patient in the supine position. If possible, the bed should be raised to a comfortable height for the operator so that bending over is unnecessary.



Supraclavicular Approach to Subclavian Vein

The key to a successful line placement is meticulous preparation and setup before the procedure is started or sterile garb is donned. This includes consideration of what equipment may be needed if complications arise. The same preparation technique should be used every time this procedure is performed. 

With the patient appropriately positioned (see Patient Preparation), identify landmarks.

Open the line kit, and position the equipment within easy reach. One may want to retract the J-wire into the plastic loop sheath for easy directing into the introducer needle. Also, uncap the distal lumen, which is typically the brown one.

Prepare the insertion site with the iodine or alcohol solution provided in the kit. This amount of preparation is often inadequate, and a wide area around the insertion site should be liberally prepared with 10 × 10 cm (4 × 4 in.) gauze soaked in a povidone-iodine solution. Prepare the neck as well, in case the initial approach fails and another approach must be attempted. A sterile field should extend from the jaw to several fingerbreadths below the clavicle.

Put on sterile mask, gown, and gloves. Drape the patient in a sterile fashion with the insertion site exposed.

Using a generous amount of lidocaine, infiltrate the skin and subcutaneous tissue.

Position the bevel of the introducer needle in line with the numbers on the syringe. Upon insertion, orient the bevel to open caudally so as to facilitate the caudal progression of the guide wire down the vein toward the right atrium.

While continuing to aspirate with the syringe, insert the introducer needle along the 45° bisection of the approximately 90° angle formed by the superior aspect of the clavicle and the lateral border of the sternocleidomastoid. The needle should be virtually parallel to the chest wall in the coronal plane. Beware of aspirating air bubbles through the probing introducer needle; this indicates a pneumothorax. (See Tube Thoracostomy.)

If the vein is difficult to locate, remove the introducer needle, flush it clean of clots, and try again. Change insertion sites after three unsuccessful passes with the introducer needle.

When venous blood is freely aspirated, disconnect the syringe from the needle, immediately occlude the lumen to prevent air embolism, and reach for the guide wire. Insert the guide wire through the needle into the vein. If the wire does not pass easily through the needle down the vein, remove the wire, reattach the syringe, and confirm that the needle is still in the lumen of the vein before reattempting the procedure.

Beware a return of red or pulsatile blood. If this occurs, the wire is in an artery.

Advance the wire until it is mostly in the vein or until ectopy is seen on the cardiac monitor. Then, retract the wire about 3-4 cm. Holding the wire in place, withdraw the introducer needle and set it aside.

Use the tip of the scalpel to make a small stab just against the wire to enlarge the catheter entry site.

Thread the dilator over the wire and into the vein with a firm and gentle twisting motion while maintaining control of the wire. Holding the wire in place, remove the dilator. To estimate the distance from the insertion site to the subclavian vein just over the atrium, the catheter can be held over the patient’s chest.

Thread the catheter over the wire, then thread the wire out of the distal (brown) lumen and grasp the wire. Continue to thread the catheter into the vein to the desired length.

Hold the catheter in place, remove the wire, and occlude the open lumen. Attach a syringe with some saline in it to the hub and aspirate blood. Take needed samples, then flush the line with saline and recap. Repeat this step with all lumina.

Verify line placement with chest radiograph. The catheter should end in the vena cava at the manubriosternal angle, not in the right atrium.

Suture the catheter in place. For patient comfort, the clinician may need to anesthetize this area with lidocaine first. Apply a clean dressing.


Local site or systemic infection is a major potential complication of this procedure. Multiple studies have shown lower infection rates with the use of maximal sterile-barrier precautions, including mask, cap, sterile gown, sterile gloves, and large sterile drape. This approach has been shown to reduce the rate of catheter-related bloodstream infections (CRBSIs) and to save an estimated $167 per catheter inserted.[6]

Additional potential complications include arterial puncture, hematoma, hemothorax, pneumothorax, and thrombosis (see Table 1 below).[5, 6, 7, 19, 24, 25]

Table 1. Rates of Selected Complications of Central Venous Catheterization [5, 6, 7, 19, 24, 25] (Open Table in a new window)


Internal Jugular




Arterial puncture






< 0.1-2.2










< 0.1-0.2














As in other central venous catheter approaches, puncture or laceration of the subclavian artery is theoretically possible. Also, the subclavian vein cannot be compressed; therefore, this approach should be avoided in patients who are anticoagulated.

A hematoma usually requires monitoring only.

Check the chest radiograph for evidence of a hemothorax. If evidence is found, consult a surgeon immediately, and consider tube thoracostomy.

Check a chest radiograph for evidence of a pneumothorax when finished or before switching to the contralateral side after failed insertion on one side.

Catheter-related thrombosis might lead to pulmonary embolism.

Other complications have been reported as well.

An air embolism is caused by negative intrathoracic pressure, with inspiration drawing air into an open line hub. Be sure the line hubs are always occluded, and note that placing the patient in the Trendelenburg position lowers this risk. If air embolism occurs, the patient should be placed in the Trendelenburg position with a left lateral decubitus tilt, which may prevent the movement of air into the right ventricle and onward; 100% oxygen should be administered to speed the resumption of air. If a catheter is located in the heart, aspiration of air should be attempted.

Dysrhythmia is due to cardiac irritation by the wire or catheter tip. Placing a central venous catheter without a cardiac monitor is unwise.

Atrial-wall puncture can lead to pericardial tamponade.

If the clinician is not conscientious about maintaining control of the guide wire, it may be lost into the vein and require retrieval by interventional radiology.

Patients who are allergic to antibiotics may experience anaphylaxis upon insertion of an antibiotic-impregnated catheter.

The catheter tip may be too deep. Check for this complication on the postprocedure chest radiograph, and pull the line back if the tip disappears into the cardiac silhouette.

The catheter may be located in the wrong vessel. When the subclavian catheter is not in the correct position, it usually deviates cranially up the internal jugular vein instead of down the subclavian vein. This complication is rare with the supraclavicular approach.

Chylothorax is a possible complication on the left side.