Skip to main content

Persistent left vena cava incidentally recognized during subclavian vein catheterization

Central venous line insertion is a routine procedure in the intensive care unit. But intensivists should be aware of the possibility of rare anatomic variants. We report an 84-year-old patient who was admitted to the intensive care unit for respiratory distress due to Guillain-Barré syndrome. After intubation of the trachea, a central venous catheter was inserted via the left subclavian vein. This was accomplished uneventfully with only one puncture. However, the post-procedural chest x-ray showed an unusual left-sided paramediastinal course of the catheter (Figure 1). We evocated an arterial placement first, but the transduced waveform and the blood gas samples were compatible with an intrathoracic vein placement. So we hypothesized that the patient could present with a persistent left superior vena cava (LSVC). This diagnosis was confirmed by transoesophageal echography: the injection of agitated saline via the right cubital vein resulted in opacification of the dilated coronary sinus prior to reaching the right atrium and right ventricle, and this confirmed the anatomic variant of LSVC associated with the absence of a right superior vena cava. There were no other abnormalities concerning heart or great vessels.

Figure 1
figure 1

Post-procedural chest x-ray showing a central venous catheter taking a left paramediastinal course (arrows).

Persistent LSVC occurs in 0.5% of the population and 5% to 10% of patients with congenital heart diseases. It usually drains into the right atrium through the coronary sinus, and it is associated with an absent right superior vena cava in 20% of cases [1]. The diagnosis can be made by bedside transthoracic or transesophageal echocardiography [2, 3]. Computed tomography can also be useful [4]. Persistent LSVC is not a contraindication to subclavian vein catheterization but can make difficult the attempt to place a central venous line, pulmonary artery catheter, or pacemaker. Some authors described the uneventful use of a catheter placed in the LSVC for several days, after checking that the catheter tip was not in the coronary sinus [3]. The use of a pulmonary artery catheter has also been reported [1]. But manipulation of a catheter through the coronary sinus may result in hypotension, angina, or cardiac rhythm trouble.



left superior vena cava.


  1. Ould-Ahmed M, Mas B, Hautbois E, Garcia JF, Caroff P, Guiavarch M: [Unusual course of a pulmonary artery catheter through a persistent superior vena cava]. Ann Fr Anesth Reanim 2000, 19: 745-748.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Voci P, Luzi G, Agati L: Diagnosis of persistent left superior vena cava by multiplane transesophageal echocardiography. Cardiologia 1995, 40: 273-275.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Higgs AG, Paris S, Potter F: Discovery of left-sided superior vena cava during central venous catheterization. Br J Anaesth 1998, 81: 260-261.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Heye T, Wengenroth M, Schipp A, Johannes Dengler T, Grenacher L, Werner Kauffmann G: Persistent left superior vena cava with absent right superior vena cava: morphological CT features and clinical implications. Int J Cardiol 2007, 116: e103-105. 10.1016/j.ijcard.2006.08.067

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


Written consent for publication was obtained from the patient's relative.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julien Bordes.

Additional information

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ original submitted files for images

Below are the links to the authors’ original submitted files for images.

Authors’ original file for figure 1

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bordes, J., Asencio, Y., d'Arranda, E. et al. Persistent left vena cava incidentally recognized during subclavian vein catheterization. Crit Care 14, 405 (2010).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Congenital Heart Disease
  • Coronary Sinus
  • Superior Vena
  • Pulmonary Artery Catheter
  • Central Venous Line