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In Depth: Vessels

The vessels of the elbow constitute a web of nerves, arteries, and veins. The arteries deliver oxygenated blood to muscles and bone, the veins return blood to the heart, and the nerves communicate with the brain.

Arteries

Oxygenated blood begins its journey into the arm by leaving the aortic arch and entering one of two subclavian arteries that travel under the collarbone in each shoulder and down the arms where it becomes the axillary and later the brachial artery.

Although technically one artery with branches, its sections in the arm have other names:

  • Brachial artery: The brachial artery is the major artery of the upper arm. It travels down the upper arm and through the elbow before dividing into the radial and ulnar arteries below the elbow.
  • Radial artery: This artery splits from the brachial artery to follow the radius bone on the thumb side of the forearm.
  • Ulnar artery: Opposite of the radial artery, this artery follows the ulna bone in the forearm on the “pinkie” finger side.

Veins

The arteries in the arm form a clean loop-like distribution system for oxygenated blood, but the veins that carry oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart create a more intricate web-like drainage system.

Some of the veins around the elbow include:

  • Cephalic vein: This large vein travels through the upper arm before branching into the forearm near the elbow. It is often easily seen through the skin in the bicep region.
  • Basilic vein: Opposite the cephalic vein, the basilic vein travels through the upper arm near the tricep muscle on the underside of the arm through the elbow.
  • Superficial veins: As their name implies, these veins are close to the skin’s surface. They are present only in the body’s extremities and are easily detected in the elbow and the back of the hand in most people.

Damage to these major veins and arteries, especially trauma to the forearm, can be fatal.

Nerves

The nerves of the elbow send messages to the brain and receive its responses. The nerves in the elbow include:

  • Ulnar nerve: This nerve runs just under the skin at the elbow’s “funny bone,” a knob on the humerus.
  • Radial nerve: This nerve supplies the tricep, wrist extensors, and most of the back of the hand.

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