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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Red Blood Cells, Anemia, and Polycythemia

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Effect of Polycythemia on Function of the Circulatory System

Because of the greatly increased viscosity of the blood in polycythemia, blood flow through the peripheral blood vessels is often very sluggish.

Effect of Polycythemia on Function of the Circulatory System

Because of the greatly increased viscosity of the blood in polycythemia, blood flow through the peripheral blood vessels is often very sluggish. In accordance with the factors that regulate return of blood to the heart, increasing blood viscosity decreases the rate of venous return to the heart. Con-versely, the blood volume is greatly increased in poly-cythemia, which tends to increase venous return. Actually, the cardiac output in polycythemia is not far from normal, because these two factors more or less neutralize each other.

The arterial pressure is also normal in most people with polycythemia, although in about one third of them, the arterial pressure is elevated. This means that the blood pressure–regulating mechanisms can usually offset the tendency for increased blood viscosity to increase peripheral resistance and, thereby, increase arterial pressure. Beyond certain limits, however, these regulations fail, and hypertension develops.

The color of the skin depends to a great extent on the quantity of blood in the skin subpapillary venous plexus. In polycythemia vera, the quantity of blood in this plexus is greatly increased. Further, because the blood passes sluggishly through the skin capillaries before entering the venous plexus, a larger than normal quantity of hemoglobin is deoxygenated. The blue color of all this deoxygenated hemoglobin masks the red color of the oxygenated hemoglobin. There-fore, a person with polycythemia vera ordinarily has a ruddy complexion with a bluish (cyanotic) tint to the skin.


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