Blood pumped by the heart flows through a series of vessels known as arteries, arterioles, capillaries, venules, and veins before returning to the heart. Arteries transport blood away from the heart and branch into smaller vessels, forming arterioles. Arterioles distribute blood to capillary beds, the sites of exchange with the body tissues. Capillaries lead back to small vessels known as venules that flow into the larger veins and eventually back to the heart.
The arterial system is a relatively high-pressure system, so arteries have thick walls that appear round in cross section. The venous system is a lower-pressure system, containing veins that have larger lumens and thinner walls. They often appear flattened. Arteries, arterioles, venules, and veins are composed of three tunics known as the tunica intima, tunica media, and tunica externa. Capillaries have only a tunica intima layer. The tunica intima is a thin layer composed of a simple squamous epithelium known as endothelium and a small amount of connective tissue. The tunica media is a thicker area composed of variable amounts of smooth muscle and connective tissue. It is the thickest layer in all but the largest arteries. The tunica externa is primarily a layer of connective tissue, although in veins, it also contains some smooth muscle. Blood flow through vessels can be dramatically influenced by vasoconstriction and vasodilation in their walls.
Blood flow is the movement of blood through a vessel, tissue, or organ. The slowing or blocking of blood flow is called resistance. Blood pressure is the force that blood exerts upon the walls of the blood vessels or chambers of the heart. The components of blood pressure include systolic pressure, which results from ventricular contraction, and diastolic pressure, which results from ventricular relaxation. Pulse pressure is the difference between systolic and diastolic measures, and mean arterial pressure is the “average” pressure of blood in the arterial system, driving blood into the tissues. Pulse, the expansion and recoiling of an artery, reflects the heartbeat. The variables affecting blood flow and blood pressure in the systemic circulation are cardiac output, compliance, blood volume, blood viscosity, and the length and diameter of the blood vessels. In the arterial system, vasodilation and vasoconstriction of the arterioles is a significant factor in systemic blood pressure: Slight vasodilation greatly decreases resistance and increases flow, whereas slight vasoconstriction greatly increases resistance and decreases flow. In the arterial system, as resistance increases, blood pressure increases and flow decreases. In the venous system, constriction increases blood pressure as it does in arteries; the increasing pressure helps to return blood to the heart. In addition, constriction causes the vessel lumen to become more rounded, decreasing resistance and increasing blood flow. Venoconstriction, while less important than arterial vasoconstriction, works with the skeletal muscle pump, the respiratory pump, and their valves to promote venous return to the heart.
Small molecules can cross into and out of capillaries via simple or facilitated diffusion. Some large molecules can cross in vesicles or through clefts, fenestrations, or gaps between cells in capillary walls. However, the bulk flow of capillary and tissue fluid occurs via filtration and reabsorption. Filtration, the movement of fluid out of the capillaries, is driven by the CHP. Reabsorption, the influx of tissue fluid into the capillaries, is driven by the BCOP. Filtration predominates in the arterial end of the capillary; in the middle section, the opposing pressures are virtually identical so there is no net exchange, whereas reabsorption predominates at the venule end of the capillary. The hydrostatic and colloid osmotic pressures in the interstitial fluid are negligible in healthy circumstances.
Neural, endocrine, and autoregulatory mechanisms affect blood flow, blood pressure, and eventually perfusion of blood to body tissues. Neural mechanisms include the cardiovascular centers in the medulla oblongata, baroreceptors in the aorta and carotid arteries and right atrium, and associated chemoreceptors that monitor blood levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen ions. Endocrine controls include epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as ADH, the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone mechanism, ANH, and EPO. Autoregulation is the local control of vasodilation and constriction by chemical signals and the myogenic response. Exercise greatly improves cardiovascular function and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Significant hemorrhage can lead to a form of circulatory shock known as hypovolemic shock. Sepsis, obstruction, and widespread inflammation can also cause circulatory shock.
The right ventricle pumps oxygen-depleted blood into the pulmonary trunk and right and left pulmonary arteries, which carry it to the right and left lungs for gas exchange. Oxygen-rich blood is transported by pulmonary veins to the left atrium. The left ventricle pumps this blood into the aorta. The main regions of the aorta are the ascending aorta, aortic arch, and descending aorta, which is further divided into the thoracic and abdominal aorta. The coronary arteries branch from the ascending aorta. After oxygenating tissues in the capillaries, systemic blood is returned to the right atrium from the venous system via the superior vena cava, which drains most of the veins superior to the diaphragm, the inferior vena cava, which drains most of the veins inferior to the diaphragm, and the coronary veins via the coronary sinus. The hepatic portal system carries blood to the liver for processing before it enters circulation. Review the figures provided in this section for circulation of blood through the blood vessels.
Blood vessels begin to form from the embryonic mesoderm. The precursor hemangioblasts differentiate into angioblasts, which give rise to the blood vessels and pluripotent stem cells that differentiate into the formed elements of the blood. Together, these cells form blood islands scattered throughout the embryo. Extensions known as vascular tubes eventually connect the vascular network. As the embryo grows within the mother’s womb, the placenta develops to supply blood rich in oxygen and nutrients via the umbilical vein and to remove wastes in oxygen-depleted blood via the umbilical arteries. Three major shunts found in the fetus are the foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus, which divert blood from the pulmonary to the systemic circuit, and the ductus venosus, which carries freshly oxygenated blood high in nutrients to the fetal heart.