Saphenous Vein Cutdown 

Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Author: Matthew A Silver, MD; Chief Editor: Vincent Lopez Rowe, MD 



Intravenous (IV) access is one of the crucial first steps in the resuscitation of any critically ill or injured patient who presents to the emergency department (ED). When peripheral IV access fails, alternative routes must be sought to obtain rapid access for the purpose of infusing IV fluids, blood products, or medications.[1] Although venous cutdown has largely been replaced by the use of over-the-wire percutaneous catheters (also known as central lines),[2] it remains an excellent alternative when other approaches have failed.[1]

The technique has been well described in the pediatric literature.[3, 4, 5]  In pediatric patients, venipuncture may be rendered more difficult by nonvisible or nonpalpable peripheral veins.[6] For infants and children, however, cutdown has largely been replaced by intraosseous access as a secondary route of access and is only recommended when all other methods have failed.[7, 8] For a comparison of vascular access methods, see Vascular Access Overview.

The great saphenous vein (GSV; also referred to as the greater or long saphenous vein) is the vessel most commonly used for the venous cutdown.[9, 10] Although the procedure can be performed at multiple sites along the length of the GSV, it is commonly performed at the ankle because the predictable and superficial location of the vein in this area allows it to be exposed with minimal dissection. Moreover, in the midst of resuscitation,[11, 12, 13] this vein's location distant from the primary resuscitative efforts centered on the head, neck, and torso affords unhindered access to the site.


Saphenous vein cutdown is indicated for the purpose of emergency venous access (when attempts to gain access via peripheral or percutaneous routes have failed).


Contraindications for saphenous vein cutdown include the following:

  • Coagulopathy or bleeding diathesis
  • Vein thrombosis
  • Overlying  cellulitis

Technical Considerations


The GSV, which is the longest vein in the body, originates at the ankle as a continuation of the medial marginal vein of the foot and ends at the femoral vein within the femoral triangle.[14]

At the ankle, the GSV crosses 1 cm anterior to the medial malleolus and continues up the anteromedial aspect of the lower leg. It continues its superficial course and lies on the posteromedial aspect at the level of the knee. In the thigh, the GSV courses anterolaterally through the fossa ovalis, where it joins the femoral vein approximately 4 cm below the inguinal ligament. (See the image below.)

Anatomic course of great saphenous vein. Anatomic course of great saphenous vein.

The small saphenous vein (SSV; also referred to as the lesser or short saphenous vein) does not directly anastomose with the GSV. It begins at the lateral aspect of the ankle and runs up the posterolateral lower leg to join the popliteal vein in the popliteal fossa.


Periprocedural Care


Equipment used in saphenous vein cutdown includes the following:

  • Mask and sterile preparatory solution, gown, gloves, drape
  • Gauze pads
  • Syringe, 5 mL, with a 25-gauge needle
  • Scalpel, No. 10 or No. 11 blade
  • Curved hemostat
  • Scissors
  • Intravenous (IV) catheter (≥14 gauge)
  • IV tubing
  • Two silk ties, 3-0
  • Nylon suture, 4-0, on a cutting needle
  • Tourniquet (optional)

Patient Preparation

Local anesthesia is used (1% lidocaine with or without epinephrine).

The patient is is placed in a supine position with the foot externally rotated. A tourniquet can be placed above the ankle but is not necessary.



Saphenous Vein Cutdown

Prepare the skin of the ankle with antiseptic solution (eg, povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine), and drape the area. Locate the vein 1 cm anterior and 1 cm superior to the medial malleolus.

In pediatric patients, ultrasonography (US) can be a useful aid for localizing the saphenous vein and assessing its size in relation to various standard-size intravenous (IV) catheters that may be considered for use.[5]

Anesthetize the skin over the area of the planned cutdown by infiltrating 1% lidocaine with or without epinephrine through a 25-gauge needle. (See Local Anesthetic Agents, Infiltrative Administration.)

Make a 2.5-cm full-thickness transverse skin incision over the site. With the curved hemostat, bluntly dissect the subcutaneous tissue parallel to the course of the great saphenous vein (GSV; also referred to as the greater or long saphenous vein). Free the vein from its bed for a length of 2 cm.

With the curved hemostat, pass the ties underneath the exposed vein proximally and distally. Ligate the distal exposed vein, and leave the free ends of the tie in place for traction. Place traction on the proximal tie to further expose the vessel from its bed.

With the scalpel, perform a small transverse venotomy through no more than 50% of the total diameter of the vessel. Be extremely careful not to transect the vein fully. Introduce the plastic catheter through the venotomy opening, and secure it with the proximal tie. The opening of the venotomy site may be difficult to access; if so, try using a 20-gauge needle bent at a right angle as a vein elevator or dilator.

Attach IV tubing to the catheter. Alternatively, the IV tubing can be inserted directly into the venotomy site for more rapid flow rates. The distal tubing can be cut on a bevel for easier insertion into the opened vein.

Close the incision with simple interrupted sutures. Apply sterile dressing.


Potential complications of saphenous vein cutdown include the following:

  • Failed cannulation
  • Creation of a false passageway in the vessel wall
  • Hemorrhage
  • Venous thrombosis
  • Infection
  • Nerve transection
  • Artery transection

In a study cited in a 2015 Cochrane review,[15] the risk of insertion failure did not differ significantly between saphenous vein cutdown and intraosseous access, though the former took longer to carry out than the latter. There was no evidence of a difference between the two techniques for any other outcome.