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Cephalic vein

Recommended video: Main veins of the upper limb [14:41]
Overview of the different veins of the shoulder, arm, forearm and hand.

The cephalic vein is a superficial vein of the upper limb and it's one of the two main veins of the arm. Its name derives from ‘cephalic’ meaning head, as the vein runs up to the shoulder. The superficial venous network is the source of blood for most blood tests, and is the easiest place to access venous blood. In this article we will discuss the anatomy and clinical relevance of the cephalic vein. 

The cephalic vein drains the radial part of the hand, forearm and arm and communicates along its course with the basilic vein, which drains the ulnar part. The cephalic vein empties directly into the axillary vein.

Key facts about the cephalic vein
Source Dorsal venous network of the hand
Empties into Axillary vein
Drainage area Radial parts of the hand, forearm and arm
Clinical relations Cephalic vein cutdown, Houseman’s friend, varicose veins
  1. Anatomy
    1. Course
    2. Drainage
  2. Clinical points
    1. Cephalic vein cutdown
    2. Houseman’s friend
    3. Varicose veins
  3. Sources
+ Show all


The cephalic vein is a superficial vein of the hand, forearm and arm. Between the superficial and deep networks of veins, are valves that reduce the likelihood of backflow from the deep venous system.


The cephalic vein drains the dorsal venous network of the hand that crosses the anatomical snuffbox, runs superficial to the radial styloid process and then ascends in the superficial fascia of the forearm. The cephalic vein then communicates with the basilic vein at the cubital fossa, via the median cubital vein. At this point the vein lies superficially in the lateral part of the elbow joint crease.

Superficial veins of the upper limb in the cadaver. Cephalic vein is seen coursing through the radial side of the upper limb, towards the axillary vein.

The cephalic vein now runs along the groove between the brachioradialis (elbow flexor and forearm supinator) and biceps brachii (forearm supinator and elbow flexor) muscles. The vein continues to ascend in the superficial fascia anterolateral to biceps brachii and superficial to the lateral cutaneous nerve of the forearm, which is a sensory branch of the musculocutaneous nerve (C5-7) that innervates the muscles of the anterior compartment of the arm. The cephalic vein continues to ascend in a groove between the pectoralis major and deltoid muscles. The deltoid branch of the thoracoacromial trunk accompanies the cephalic vein in this region.

Veins are not the easiest topic to learn, so it's important to study effectively! Be sure to avoid these common anatomy learning mistakes.


It crosses the clavipectoral fascia and axillary artery to drain into the axillary vein below the clavicle. The axillary vein is renamed the subclavian vein once it passes the lateral border of the first rib, and the subclavian vein unites with the internal jugular vein to form the brachiocephalic vein.

The thoracic duct drains lymph from the lower limbs, pelvis, abdomen, left thorax, left upper limb and left side of the head and neck and drains into the angle between the left jugular vein and the subclavian vein on the left hand side. The lymphatic drainage of the right upper limb, right thorax and right side of the head and neck empties into the junction between the right subclavian vein and internal jugular vein, which merge to form the right brachiocephalic vein. The two brachiocephalic veins unite to form the superior vena cava that drains into the right atrium of the heart.

Take a look at the following study unit and master the anatomy of the cephalic vein!

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