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The cardiovascular system is sometimes called the circulatory system. It consists of the heart, which is a muscular pumping device, and a closed system of vessels called arteries, veins, and capillaries. As the name implies, blood contained in the circulatory system is pumped by the heart around a closed circuit of vessels as it passes again and again through the various "circulations" of the body.
The heart is enclosed by a sac known as the pericardium. There are three layers of tissues that form the heart wall. The outer layer of the heart wall is the epicardium, the middle layer is the myocardium, and the inner layer is the endocardium. The internal cavity of the heart is divided into four chambers:
The two atria are thin-walled chambers that receive blood from the veins. The two ventricles are thick-walled chambers that forcefully pump blood out of the heart. Differences in thickness of the heart chamber walls are due to variations in the amount of myocardium present, which reflects the amount of force each chamber is required to generate.
The right atrium receives deoxygenated blood from systemic veins; the left atrium receives oxygenated blood from the pulmonary veins.
Valves of the Heart
Pumps need a set of valves to keep the fluid flowing in one direction and the heart is no exception. The heart has two types of valves that keep the blood flowing in the correct direction. The valves between the atria and ventricles are called atrioventricular valves (also called cuspid valves), while those at the bases of the large vessels leaving the ventricles are called semilunar valves.
The right atrioventricular valve is the tricuspid valve. The left atrioventricular valve is the bicuspid, or mitral, valve. The valve between the right ventricle and pulmonary trunk is the pulmonary semilunar valve. The valve between the left ventricle and the aorta is the aortic semilunar valve.
When the ventricles contract, atrioventricular valves close to prevent blood from flowing back into the atria. When the ventricles relax, semilunar valves close to prevent blood from flowing back into the ventricles.
Pathway of Blood through the Heart
While it is convenient to describe the flow of blood through the right side of the heart and then through the left side, it is important to realize that both atria contract at the same time and both ventricles contract at the same time. The heart works as two pumps, one on the right and one on the left, working simultaneously. Blood flows from the right atrium to the right ventricle, and then is pumped to the lungs to receive oxygen. From the lungs, the blood flows to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle. From there it is pumped to the systemic circulation.
Blood Supply to the Myocardium
The myocardium of the heart wall is a working muscle that needs a continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients to function with efficiency. For this reason, cardiac muscle has an extensive network of blood vessels to bring oxygen to the contracting cells and to remove waste products.
The right and left coronary arteries, branches of the ascending aorta, supply blood to the walls of the myocardium. After blood passes through the capillaries in the myocardium, it enters a system of cardiac (coronary) veins. Most of the cardiac veins drain into the coronary sinus, which opens into the right atrium.
Blood vessels are the channels or conduits through which blood is distributed to body tissues. The vessels make up two closed systems of tubes that begin and end at the heart. One system, the pulmonary vessels, transports blood from the right ventricle to the lungs and back to the left atrium. The other system, the systemic vessels, carries blood from the left ventricle to the tissues in all parts of the body and then returns the blood to the right atrium. Based on their structure and function, blood vessels are classified as either arteries, capillaries, or veins.
Arteries carry blood away from the heart. Pulmonary arteries transport blood that has a low oxygen content from the right ventricle to the lungs. Systemic arteries transport oxygenated blood from the left ventricle to the body tissues. Blood is pumped from the ventricles into large elastic arteries that branch repeatedly into smaller and smaller arteries until the branching results in microscopic arteries called arterioles. The arterioles play a key role in regulating blood flow into the tissue capillaries. About 10 percent of the total blood volume is in the systemic arterial system at any given time.
The wall of an artery consists of three layers. The innermost layer, the tunica intima (or just intima), contains simple squamous epithelium, basement membrane and connective tissues. The epithelium is in direct contact with the blood flow. The middle layer, the tunica media, is primarily smooth muscle and is usually the thickest layer. It not only provides support for the vessel but also changes vessel diameter to regulate blood flow and blood pressure. The outermost layer, which attaches the vessel to the surrounding tissue, is the tunica externa or tunica adventitia. This layer is connective tissue with varying amounts of elastic and collagenous fibers. The connective tissue in this layer is quite dense where it is adjacent to the tunic media, but it changes to loose connective tissue near the periphery of the vessel.
Veins carry blood toward the heart. After blood passes through the capillaries, it enters the smallest veins, called venules. From the venules, it flows into progressively larger and larger veins until it reaches the heart. In the pulmonary circuit, the pulmonary veins transport blood from the lungs to the left atrium of the heart. This blood has a high oxygen content because it has just been oxygenated in the lungs. Systemic veins transport blood from the body tissue to the right atrium of the heart. This blood has a reduced oxygen content because the oxygen has been used for metabolic activities in the tissue cells.
The walls of veins have the same three layers as the arteries. Although all the layers are present, there is less smooth muscle and connective tissue. This makes the walls of veins thinner than those of arteries, which is related to the fact that blood in the veins has less pressure than in the arteries. Because the walls of the veins are thinner and less rigid than arteries, veins can hold more blood. Almost 70 percent of the total blood volume is in the veins at any given time. Medium and large veins have venous valves, similar to the semilunar valves associated with the heart, that help keep the blood flowing toward the heart. Venous valves are especially important in the arms and legs, where they prevent the backflow of blood in response to the pull of gravity.
Capillaries, the smallest and most numerous of the blood vessels, form the connection between the vessels that carry blood away from the heart (arteries) and the vessels that return blood to the heart (veins). The primary function of capillaries is the exchange of materials between the blood and tissue cells.
Capillary distribution varies with the metabolic activity of body tissues. Tissues such as skeletal muscle, liver, and kidney have extensive capillary networks because they are metabolically active and require an abundant supply of oxygen and nutrients. Other tissues, such as connective tissue, have a less abundant supply of capillaries. The epidermis of the skin and the lens and cornea of the eye completely lack a capillary network. About 5 percent of the total blood volume is in the systemic capillaries at any given time. Another 10 percent is in the lungs.
Smooth muscle cells in the arterioles where they branch to form capillaries regulate blood flow from the arterioles into the capillaries.
Role of the Capillaries
In addition to forming the connection between the arteries and veins, capillaries have a vital role in the exchange of gases, nutrients, and metabolic waste products between the blood and the tissue cells. Substances pass through the capillaries wall by diffusion, filtration, and osmosis. Oxygen and carbon dioxide move across the capillary wall by diffusion. Fluid movement across a capillary wall is determined by a combination of hydrostatic and osmotic pressure. The net result of the capillary microcirculation created by hydrostatic and osmotic pressure is that substances leave the blood at one end of the capillary and return at the other end.