What are Tunneled Catheters?

July 12, 2016 1 Comment

We are excited to be shipping out our first orders of port access shirts in August! Currently, they are available for pre-order here. In this blog post, we’ll be talking about one of the treatments that our port access shirts can be useful for: tunneled catheters.

Let’s begin with the basics:

What are tunneled catheters?

A tunneled central venous catheter is a long, flexible tube.

Are there other names for tunneled catheters?

Tunneled catheters are also called external catheters or central lines. 

Where is a tunneled catheter placed?

One end of the catheter is placed in or near the right atrium of the heart. The other end is outside the skin of the chest. The tube tunnels under the skin of the chest, enters a large vein near the collarbone, and threads inside the vein into or near the right atrium of the heart.

I’m having trouble picturing this, what would a tunneled catheter placement look like on a person?

The following diagram shows where a tunneled catheter is placed:

You can also see where a tunneled catheter is placed inside a person in this video

Now that I understand where a tunneled catheter is placed, can you tell me a little more about how it is inserted into the patient?

The tunneled catheter placement procedure is done in an operating room while the patient is under general anesthesia.

The following steps are followed:
  1. The doctor makes two small cuts in the skin. One cut is made over the vein where the catheter will enter the body. The other cut is made where the catheter will come out of the skin.
  2. The tip of the catheter is inserted in the large vein near the heart and threaded into or near the right atrium.
  3. The rest of the catheter is tunneled just under the skin and comes out on the chest or abdomen. There will be 15-25 centimeters of the catheter left outside the body.
  4. The doctor places a few stitches in the skin around the catheter to hold it in place.
  5. The incision over the vein is closed with a few stitches or pieces of tape.
  6. A dressing is placed over both incisions.
  7. A chest x-ray is done to confirm the catheter tip is in the correct position.

    There is a small cuff on the catheter just behind where it comes out of the skin. This may be felt as a small bump under the skin. Body tissue will heal into this cuff in about three weeks and hold the catheter in place. The area may be tender for one to two days after the catheter is placed, but the soreness should disappear in a few days.

    If one end of the catheter is outside the skin on the chest, will the patient feel any pain as a result of the catheter?

    The patient should feel no pain when fluids are put into the end of the catheter hanging outside the body.

    What are these catheters used for?

    A tunneled catheter is used when a person:

    • Needs intravenous (IV) access so they can receive fluids, transfusions, or drugs for a long period of time (generally longer than three months)
    • Needs multiple blood draws for lab tests (more blood draws can be done with a tunneled catheter than with a PICC line)
    • Has peripheral veins that are not large enough for a PICC line
    • Has small veins in the body that can no longer be used for giving fluids or drugs

    When a person needs IV therapy, the IV tubing is connected to the end of the catheter outside the body. The fluid or medicine flows through the IV tubing into the catheter, then into the bloodstream. After treatment is over, the IV tubing is removed and a new cap is placed on the end of the catheter.

    What are the primary benefits of using this kind of catheter?

    There are many benefits to having a tunneled central venous catheter rather than a regular IV. The most important benefit is that it reduces the number of needle sticks. However, it is important not to tell children that having a tunneled catheter means they will never have to be “poked” again, since they may still need needle sticks for some blood tests.

    Other benefits of using this kind of catheter include:
    • The catheter can remain in the vein for a long time
    • The catheter is very secure in the vein
    • The catheter reduces discomfort because the IV therapy can be given more easily
    • The catheter prevents the “burning” sensation sometimes felt when getting drugs by other IV methods

    Are there different kinds of catheters?

    Tunneled catheters are sometimes referred to by their brand name. Broviac, Hickman, and Groshong catheters are some examples of these names.

    How are you supposed to care for a tunneled central venous catheter?

    A tunneled catheter requires special care to prevent infection and blood clots. The site where the catheter exits the body must be clean often (suggested every other day) and a fresh, sterile dressing needs to be applied and taped in place. The site should be checked often for redness, swelling, and drainage, which could be indications of infection and if you see any of these contact your doctor or nurse immediately.

    Does having a tunneled catheter affect your daily lifestyle?

    A person with a tunneled catheter may continue most normal activities while the catheter is in place. Showering or bathing is done with plastic or waterproof tape over the dressing. Swimming is strongly discouraged.

    Now let’s talk about how our port access shirts work:

    What is the primary purpose of our port shirts?

    The goal of using one of our port access shirt is to access your chest port or central line easily without having to disrobe when you need to access the port, for instance during an infusion session.

    What are some of the other benefits of our shirts?

    Our shirts are made with ultra-soft and comfortable cotton and modal fabric, and no latex or natural rubbers. The antimicrobial treatment is also EPA approved.

    How should I care for my port shirt?

    Our shirts should be machine washed cold with like colors and tumbled dried low or laid flat to dry. They shouldn’t be bleached.

    We hope you found this blog post helpful! If you have questions about tunneled catheters, our port access shirts, or anything else, feel free to email us at

    1 Response

    Braden Bills
    Braden Bills

    August 10, 2016

    I’ve always been curious about a catheters and how they work. I think it’s interesting that they go right near your heart. It’s interesting that they can help people get IV and transfusions when needed. Thanks for sharing!

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