Understanding the process of intravenous access


Virginia M Stewart, MD outlines when intravenous access may be needed and how the skilful process should be undertaken

Patients coming to the Emergency Department (ED) with shortness of breath may have characteristics that impede intravenous (IV) access. Such characteristics may include hypotension, dialysis dependence, morbid obesity, history of diabetes, sickle cell disease, or IV drug use. One prospective observational study identified nearly 1 in every 9 to 10 adults coming to an urban ED had difficult venous access requiring 3 or more IV attempts.1 If peripheral IVs are not established, patients may need a central venous catheter placed for life-saving medications administered. In addition to requiring physician skill, central venous catheter insertion carries a risk of complications including infection, arterial puncture or an aneurysm, and pneumothorax. Ultrasound-guidance for peripheral IV placement (UGPIV) has prevented the need for central venous catheter placement in 85% of patients with difficult intravenous access.2 UGPIV has been performed by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) in prehospital settings, as well as nurses and physicians. Patients who have been identified as having difficult access have higher patient satisfaction scores when ultrasound is used in peripheral IV access attempts.3

Frequently, the large veins of the antecubital fossa are sufficient to place large bore peripheral IVs needed for resuscitation. The brachial and basilic veins are easy to locate. The brachial artery is generally flanked by 2 smaller veins and the median nerve. Anatomically, these structures are medial to the insertion of the medial biceps tendon. This tendon is palpable in the antecubital fossa as the patient flexes then extends the elbow. The basilic vein is located medial to the brachial vessels. Generally, it is more superficial, larger, and does not have an accompanying artery or nerve at the level of the antecubital fossa. As you move proximally up the arm (towards the head) the basilic vein dives deeper toward the humerus, and longer angiocatheters may be required for cannulation.

When considering vascular access, there are 2 views, a short and long axis view. Cannulation from the short axis is considered ‘out of plane’ since the needle is perpendicular to the probe. A short axis approach ‘looks’ at a cross section of the vessel. Long axis uses and ‘in plane’ approach with the needle entering from the probe marker end and ‘looks’ along the length of the vessel. Figure 1 identifies a vessel using colour Doppler in the short axis view. Figure 2 demonstrates a long axis view with a hyperechoic angiocatheter. Figure 3 is the same vessel in long axis with the angiocatheter placed. While both approaches may be used for UGPIV placement, the benefit for the short axis is the ability to identify target veins as well as accompanying non-target (arteries and nerve) structures.

Identify the vein: remember the two C’s

The two C’s to remember for UGPIV access or for central venous cannulation are compression and colour (or Power) Doppler. Veins are thinner-walled and more easily compressed than arteries. This author advocates for finding a vessel first in the short plane, and compressing the vessel to ensure it is indeed a vein, rather than a less or non-compressible artery. Colour or Power Doppler may be utilised to determine if the pulsatile flow is consistent with an artery or vein. Colour Doppler uses red and blue to determine flow towards or away from the probe respectively. Power Doppler detects flow without concern for direction. Colour should not be relied on alone to determine arterial or venous flow due to the colour scale setting can be flipped or reversed, or aliasing can occur. Arterial flow is more pulsatile than venous. Venous flow may require distal augmentation (by squeezing the forearm distal to the probe) to appreciate the blush of colour.

Once the target vein is identified, the depth from the skin surface should be noted. A common mistake is to use an angiocatheter that is too long or too short. A general rule of thumb is to use a catheter length that is more than twice the depth of the vessel to ensure at least half the catheter lies within the vein. Sterile ultrasound gel should be used, with a covered probe to prevent infection. To prevent the risk of multiple punctures, this author advocates for first bouncing the needle on the skin over the point of entry. The tissue should deform at the top of the screen, and confirm the needle is over the target vessel. Once the skin is punctured, the needle tip is kept in view by angling the ultrasound probe until the target vessel is punctured.

To confirm placement, either a ‘bubble study’ with agitated saline may be performed or Colour (or Power) Doppler utilised to visualise saline flow through the cannulated vessel. A vessel that is not properly cannulated will demonstrate extravasation of saline around the vessel into the tissue before the tissue swells to a degree which is palpable on the surface of the skin. Figure 4 demonstrates confirmation of intraosseous (IO) lines utilise Power Doppler. A 10cc saline flush is rapidly pushed through the line, and flow is demonstrated beneath the bony cortex in this adult tibia. If the line is improperly placed, the blush of colour using Doppler would appear in the soft tissues. For further information about UGPIV placement, visit: http://rmgultrasound.com/piv-access/


1 Fields, J.M., Piela, N.E., Au, A.K., Ku, B.S., Risk factors associated with difficult venous access in adult ED patients. Am J Emerg Med. 2014 Oct; 32(10):1179-82.

2 Au, A.K., Rotte, M.J., Grzybowski, R.J., Ku, B.S., Fields, J.M., Decrease in central venous catheter placement due to use of ultrasound guidance for peripheral intravenous catheters. Am J Emerg Med. 2012 Nov;30(9):1950-4.

3 Schoenfield, E., Shokoohi, H., Boniface, K. Ultrasound-guided peripheral intravenous access in the emergency department: a patient-centred survey. West J Emerg Med. 2011 Nov;12(4):475-7.


Virginia M Stewart, MD

Forsythe Emergency Services, PA

PO Box 25447





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