circulatory system

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

circulatory system

circulatory system, group of organs that transport blood and the substances it carries to and from all parts of the body. The circulatory system can be considered as composed of two parts: the systemic circulation, which serves the body as a whole except for the lungs, and the pulmonary circulation, which carries the blood to and from the lungs. The organs of circulatory system consist of vessels that carry the blood and a muscular pump, the heart, that drives the blood.

Of the vessels, the arteries carry blood away from the heart; the main arterial vessel, the aorta, branches into smaller arteries, which in turn branch repeatedly into still smaller vessels and reach all parts of the body. Within the body tissues, the vessels are microscopic capillaries through which gas and nutrient exchange occurs (see respiration). Blood leaving the tissue capillaries enters converging vessels, the veins, to return to the heart and lungs. The human heart is a four-chambered organ with a dividing wall, or septum, that separates it into a right heart for pumping blood from the returning veins into the lungs and a left heart for pumping blood from the lungs to the body via the aorta.

An auxiliary system, the lymphatic system, is composed of vessels that collect lymph from body tissues. Carried to converging vessels of increasing size, the lymph enters the thoracic duct and is emptied into a large vein near the heart.

Systemic Circulation

In the systemic circulation, which serves the body except for the lungs, oxygenated blood from the lungs returns to the heart from two pairs of pulmonary veins, a pair from each lung. It enters the left atrium, which contracts when filled, sending blood into the left ventricle (a large percentage of blood also enters the ventricle passively, without atrial contraction). The bicuspid, or mitral, valve controls blood flow into the ventricle. Contraction of the powerful ventricle forces the blood under great pressure into the aortic arch and on into the aorta. The coronary arteries stem from the aortic root and nourish the heart muscle itself. Three major arteries originate from the aortic arch, supplying blood to the head, neck, and arms. The other major arteries originating from the aorta are the renal arteries, which supply the kidneys; the celiac axis and superior and inferior mesenteric arteries, which supply the intestines, spleen, and liver; and the iliac arteries, which branch out to the lower trunk and become the femoral and popliteal arteries of the thighs and legs, respectively. The arterial walls are partially composed of fibromuscular tissue, which help to regulate blood pressure and flow. In addition, a system of shunts allows blood to bypass the capillary beds and helps to regulate body temperature.

At the far end of the network, the capillaries converge to form venules, which in turn form veins. The inferior vena cava returns blood to the heart from the legs and trunk; it is supplied by the iliac veins from the legs, the hepatic veins from the liver, and the renal veins from the kidneys. The subclavian veins, draining the arms, and the jugular veins, draining the head and neck, join to form the superior vena cava. The two vena cavae, together with the coronary veins, return blood low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide to the right atrium of the heart.

Pulmonary Circulation

The pulmonary circulation carries the blood to and from the lungs. In the heart, the blood flows from the right atrium into the right ventricle; the tricuspid valve prevents backflow from ventricles to atria. The right ventricle contracts to force blood into the lungs through the pulmonary arteries. In the lungs oxygen is picked up and carbon dioxide eliminated, and the oxygenated blood returns to the heart via the pulmonary veins, thus completing the circuit. In pulmonary circulation, the arteries carry oxygen-poor blood, and the veins bear oxygen-rich blood.

The Body's Filtering System

The organs most intimately related to the substances carried by the blood are the kidneys, which filter out nitrogenous wastes and regulate concentration of salts; the spleen, which removes worn red blood cells, or lymphocytes; and the liver, which contributes clotting factors to the blood, helps to control blood sugar levels, also removes old red blood cells and, receiving all the veins from the intestines and stomach, detoxifies the blood before it returns to the vena cava (see urinary system).

Circulatory Disorders

Disorders of the circulatory system generally result in diminished flow of blood and diminished oxygen exchange to the tissues. Blood supply is also impeded in such conditions as arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure (see hypertension); low blood pressure resulting from injury (shock) is manifested by inadequate blood flow. Acute impairment of blood flow to the heart muscle itself with resulting damage to the heart, known as a heart attack or myocardial infarction, or to the brain (stroke) are most dangerous. Structural defects of the heart affecting blood distribution may be congenital or caused by many diseases, e.g., rheumatic fever, coronary artery disease.

See also heart disease; angina pectoris.

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