IVExpertPeerReviewStamp2x200Intravenous (IV) access is a basic and invaluable skill for emergency physicians. For patients requiring rapid fluid resuscitation, airway management, or medication administration, the placement of one or more IV lines is absolutely essential. Most patients do well with a simple, landmark-based, blind placement of a superficial peripheral IV. However, we often encounter situations where this may be difficult or impossible to achieve, and so we all should have a repertoire of other sites and techniques to employ.

[su_tabs vertical=”yes”][su_tab title=”US-Guided Deep Peripheral IVs”]

Ultrasound (US)-guided IV placement has been shown to be safe, quick, and patient-friendly in adults and children [1, 2]. In at least 10% of patients, we encounter in the ED, blind insertion of a peripheral IV may be complicated by obesity, edema, IV drug use, surgical scars, dialysis, burns, etc. Obtaining peripheral IV access rapidly can avoid the time and risk associated with central venous catheterization or the discomfort of intraosseous access.

Deep veins of the upper arm are generally larger and are the best targets, especially the basilic and cephalic veins.

Ideal in these situations: Peripheral IV candidates complicated by obesity, IV drug use, or inability to lie flat for procedures

Not ideal in these situations: Central access needed, cardiac arrest

Optimal positioning: Ideally, position patient with shoulder slightly abducted, elbow completely extended, forearm completely supinated. The ultrasound machine should be placed next to the patient’s head or on the opposite side of the bed, so that you turn your neck as little as possible.


  • Use a long (1.8 or 2.5 inch) catheter because it typically needs to traverse through more tissue to a deep vein.
  • Clean the ultrasound transducer should be cleaned and apply sterile lubricant.
  • Apply a tourniquet proximal to the site.
  • Use universal precautions.
  • Clean the skin just distal to the probe with an antiseptic swab.
  • Use the linear ultrasound transducer and adjust the position/depth so that the vessel is in the center of the image.Veins will be thin-walled and easily compressible, compared with arteries that will be thick-walled and non-compressible.
  • Insert the needle at a 30-45 degree angle, just distal to the ultrasound probe.
  • Slowly sweep the probe proximally as the needle tip moves proximally.
  • Once a flash is seen in the IV chamber, the rest of the procedure proceeds similar to the blind technique.
  • Drop the angle of the needle about 15 degrees and advance it another 1-2 mm to ensure that both the tip of the catheter and the needle are in the vein.
  • Hold the needle in place as the catheter is completely advanced.

Complications: Paresthesias, brachial artery puncture, hematoma formation, IV decannulation


  • The best target will be the vein that is the largest and most superficial.
  • For deep veins, angle your catheter at a steeper angle than you would for a superficial vein (35-45 degrees).
  • You can use the ultrasound to confirm catheter placement afterwards by visualizing tiny bubbles within the vessel during saline flush. Anechoic fluid in the soft tissue suggests extraluminal placement.


[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”External Jugular Vein (EJ)”]

The EJ vein is a great site for rapid IV access. It can often be accessed without ultrasound guidance and is a large vein that can often be used for medication/fluid administration and phlebotomy. Vasoactive medications and radiographic contrast should not be administered due to potential complications such as extravasation and airway compromise. The EJ vein courses over the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) before joining the subclavian vein under the clavicular head of the SCM.


Ideal in these situations: Ultrasound not readily available, EJ vein easily seen on exam

Not ideal in these situations: Unable to visualize landmarks on neck, patient unable to tolerate laying flat

Optimal positioning: Position the patient in Trendelenburg about 10-15 degrees. Turn head slightly away from side of EJ cannulation.


  • With the patient positioned properly, cleanse the site and use a finger to provide slight traction next to the vein to anchor it.
  • Approach the vein at a 5-10 degrees angle, about midway between the angle of the jaw and the clavicle.
  • After a blood flash return in the IV catheter, advance the catheter until the hub is secure against the skin.

Complications: Hematoma, laceration of the deeper internal jugular vein, air embolism, infection, airway compromise



Start at the 1-minute mark for the actual procedure.

[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Intraosseous (IO) Line”]

Intraosseus (IO) Line

An intraosseus line is used for emergent vascular access when one is unable to obtain peripheral venous access. It allows you to draw almost any lab, including blood cultures and lactate, as well as administer large volumes of fluid, blood, inotropes, and vasopressors. While historically used in pediatric cardiac arrest, IO access is also used in adult resuscitation for rapid vascular access. The most common site for IO access in the anteromedial tibia, 1-2 cm distal to the tibial tuberosity. Alternative sites include the humeral head and the distal femur in the anterior midline above the external epicondyles, 1-3 cm proximal to the femoral plateau.

Ideal in these situations: Cardiac arrest or profound cardiogenic shock, when peripheral or central access have failed or are difficult

Not ideal in these situations: Previous IO attempts in the same bone, osteogenesis imperfecta, osteoporosis, proximal fractures, overlying infection or skin damage

Method: This assumes use of a powered device, such as the EZ-IO.

  • Sterilize the insertion site with povidone-iodine, chlorhexidine, or alcohol.
  • Use your nondominant hand to stabilize the arm or leg.
  • Insert the IO needle perpendicular to the bone. The resistance suddenly decreases once the marrow cavity is entered.
  • Remove the trocar.
  • Use a 5- to 10-mL syringe to aspirate blood for confirmation.
  • Slowly instill lidocaine into the intraosseous space to anesthetize the visceral pain fibers.
  • Observe the area for signs of extravasation.
  • Secure the needle and immobilize the extremity.


  • For humeral IO insertion, be sure the patient’s shoulder is internally rotated (patient’s hand on his/her abdomen).
  • Monitor the extremity continuously for compartment syndrome.
  • IOs should be removed within 24 hours.
  • For removal, connect a Luer lock syringe to the hub of the catheter, and twist clockwise while pulling the needle straight out. Do not rock back and forth which could cause bone cracks.
  • Infusion is still going to be painful despite lidocaine.
  • EZ-IO drills are not to be used for the sternum like they do in the military. They use a different apparatus.

Complications: Extravasation



Central Venous Access

Central venous access is indicated for infusions that require larger, less fragile veins, such as vasopressors, hyperosmolar solutions, and hyperalimentation (Note: vasopressors can be infused peripherally in certain circumstances per EMCrit.) Central access could also be considered when peripheral IV access is very difficult, such as with extensive burns to the body, or if multiple medications need to be infused, or blood draws need to happen frequently. A 2012 Critical Care Medicine systematic review suggests that there is no difference in catheter-related bloodstream infections between the three typical sites: internal jugular, subclavian, and femoral veins. The best site to place a central line can depend on several factors detailed below. Ultimately, line selection is a complex clinical judgment rather than a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. It is driven by setting (level of hemodynamic instability, risks for abrupt crash), patient factors (anxiety, cooperativeness, sedation levels or safety for sedation, airway sustainability/adequacy/patency), operator experience and flexibility, and probable need for multiple drug infusions and therapies.


[su_tabs vertical=”yes”][su_tab title=”Internal Jugular (IJ) Vein”]

The IJ vein is often the ideal site to place a central line. An IJ central line will allow placement of a pulmonary artery catheter or a transvenous pacing wire, as well as for measurement of CVP. The IJ vein typically lies anterolaterally to the carotid artery at the apex of the triangle formed by the clavicle and the two heads of the sternocleidomastoid muscle.

Ideal in these situations: Most central venous access needs

Not ideal in these situations: Patients who cannot lay flat or have respiratory distress, distorted anatomy or trauma at site, suspected cervical spine fracture

Optimal positioning: Place patient in 15 degree Trendelenburg position and rotate patient’s head opposite the site of cannulation.

Method: The standard basic technique on the placement of a central line will not be reviewed here. Please consult your preferred textbook, or watch the videos below to review the procedure.


Complications: Airway compromise from hematoma, pneumothorax, carotid artery puncture, thrombosis, infection


[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Femoral Vein”]

The femoral vein is a useful site for code/crash situations, where the neck is inaccessible due to active airway management and/or the chest is occupied with ongoing CPR. It it often the easiest site to perform blind central vein cannulation based on landmarks alone, and thus quickest if very rapid central access must be achieved, e.g. in patients in extremis. It is also the site to use if patients cannot lay flat for a subclavian or IJ central line. The femoral vein is classically located medial to the femoral artery, best remembered by the mnemonic NAVEL (from lateral to medial- Nerve, Artery, Vein, Empty space, Lymphatics).


Ideal in these situations: Patients in extremis, code situations, coagulopathic patients, patients who cannot lay flat

Not ideal in these situations: Distorted anatomy or trauma to region, suspected proximal vascular injury (e.g. the IVC)

Optimal positioning: Patient can be sitting about 45 degrees to supine. Externally rotate leg and bend the knee to expose the groin.

Method: Basic technique on the placement of a central line will not be reviewed here. Please consult your preferred textbook, or watch the videos below to review the procedure.


  • During chest compressions, pulses may be felt in either the artery or vein. Some would argue that it is safer to always choose intraosseus access in cardiac arrest.
  • If you inadvertently start too inferiorly, your needle may be cannulating the greater saphenous vein, in which it is difficult to introduce the guidewire due to its valves and smaller diameter.

Complications: Retroperitoneal hematoma, thrombosis, infection


Placing a femoral central line in a pulseless patient:

NEJM video on femoral central line placement

[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Subclavian Vein”]


The subclavian vein is another common site, especially when an ultrasound is not available. The subclavian vein is classically located just over the 1st rib. It lies immediately posterior to the medial 1/3 of the clavicle. It is separated from the deeper subclavian artery by the anterior scalene muscle, and is 1-2 cm in diameter.

Ideal in these situations: For any central venous access needs, ultrasound not readily available

Not ideal in these situations: Coagulopathic patients, distorted anatomy or trauma, pneumothorax on opposite site of cannulation, fracture of the clavicle or proximal ribs

Optimal positioning: Place the patient in Trendelenburg position. The vein is kept patent by surrounding costoclavicular ligaments but Trendelenburg position will help prevent air embolism. Place a small towel between the scapulae to reduce deltoid muscle bulge. Abduct arm slightly.

Method: Basic technique on the placement of a central line will not be reviewed here. Please consult your preferred textbook, or watch the videos below to review the procedure.


  • Most patients with a malpositioned catheter were into the IJ. Apply external pressure over the base of the IJ vein using a sterile finger during guidewire insertion to prevent the guidewire from going into the IJ. [Ambesh et al 2002]
  • Patients with ear pain or a tickling throat sensation during guidewire insertion typically means that the guidewire is in the IJ. [Ambesh et al 2002]
  • Avoid placing a subclavian line opposite to a known or suspected pneumothorax, due to the risk of creating bilateral pneumothoraces.
  • Try using ultrasound to guide your placement if anatomy is difficult or with patients who have high risk of pneumothorax.

Complications: Pneumothorax, thrombosis, infection




  1. Costantino TG, Parikh AK, Satz WA, Fojtik JP. Ultrasonography-guided peripheral intravenous access versus traditional approaches in patients with difficult intravenous access. Ann Emerg Med. 2005 Nov;46(5):456-61. PMID 16271677
  2. Keyes LE, Frazee BW, Snoey ER, Simon BC, Christy D. Ultrasound-guided brachial and basilic vein cannulation in emergency department patients with difficult intravenous access. Ann Emerg Med. 1999 Dec;34(6):711-4. PMID 10577399
  3. Shah, Kaushal, and Chilembwe Mason, eds. Essential emergency procedures. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007.

Additional Reading: Lin, M. (2012). Difficult Vascular Access: Alternative Approaches & Troubleshooting Tips [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from UCSF CME Department.

Terrance Lee, MD

Terrance Lee, MD

Emergency Medicine Resident
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Harvard-Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency
Terrance Lee, MD

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