The Superior Vena Cava

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The superior vena cava drains most of the body superior to the diaphragm. On both the left and right sides, the subclavian vein forms when the axillary vein passes through the body wall from the axillary region. It fuses with the external and internal jugular veins from the head and neck to form the brachiocephalic vein. Each vertebral vein also flows into the brachiocephalic vein close to this fusion. These veins arise from the base of the brain and the cervical region of the spinal cord, and flow largely through the intervertebral foramina in the cervical vertebrae. They are the counterparts of the vertebral arteries. Each internal thoracic vein, also known as an internal mammary vein, drains the anterior surface of the chest wall and flows into the brachiocephalic vein.

The remainder of the blood supply from the thorax drains into the azygos vein. Each intercostal vein drains muscles of the thoracic wall, each esophageal vein delivers blood from the inferior portions of the esophagus, each bronchial vein drains the systemic circulation from the lungs, and several smaller veins drain the mediastinal region. Bronchial veins carry approximately 13 percent of the blood that flows into the bronchial arteries; the remainder intermingles with the pulmonary circulation and returns to the heart via the pulmonary veins. These veins flow into the azygos vein, and with the smaller hemiazygos vein (hemi- = “half”) on the left of the vertebral column, drain blood from the thoracic region. The hemiazygos vein does not drain directly into the superior vena cava but enters the brachiocephalic vein via the superior intercostal vein.

The azygos vein passes through the diaphragm from the thoracic cavity on the right side of the vertebral column and begins in the lumbar region of the thoracic cavity. It flows into the superior vena cava at approximately the level of T2, making a significant contribution to the flow of blood. It combines with the two large left and right brachiocephalic veins to form the superior vena cava.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: