Blood Vessels

Illustration shows the major human blood vessels. From the heart, blood is pumped into the aorta and distributed to systemic arteries. The carotid arteries bring blood to the head. The brachial arteries bring blood to the arms. The thoracic aorta brings blood down the trunk of the body along the spine. The hepatic, gastric and renal arteries, which branch from the thoracic aorta, bring blood to the liver, stomach and kidneys, respectively. The iliac artery brings blood to the legs. Blood is returned to the heart through two major veins, the superior vena cava at the top, and the inferior vena cava at the bottom. The jugular veins return blood from the head. The basilic veins return blood from the arms. The hepatic, gastric and renal veins return blood from the liver, stomach and kidneys, respectively. The iliac vein returns blood from the legs.

Figure 1. The major human arteries and veins are shown. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

The blood from the heart is carried through the body by a complex network of blood vessels (Figure 1). Arteries take blood away from the heart. The main artery is the aorta that branches into major arteries that take blood to different limbs and organs. These major arteries include the carotid artery that takes blood to the brain, the brachial arteries that take blood to the arms, and the thoracic artery that takes blood to the thorax and then into the hepatic, renal, and gastric arteries for the liver, kidney, and stomach, respectively. The iliac artery takes blood to the lower limbs. The major arteries diverge into minor arteries, and then smaller vessels called arterioles, to reach more deeply into the muscles and organs of the body.

Arterioles diverge into capillary beds. Capillary beds contain a large number (10 to 100) of capillaries that branch among the cells and tissues of the body. Capillaries are narrow-diameter tubes that can fit red blood cells through in single file and are the sites for the exchange of nutrients, waste, and oxygen with tissues at the cellular level. Fluid also crosses into the interstitial space from the capillaries. The capillaries converge again into venules that connect to minor veins that finally connect to major veins that take blood high in carbon dioxide back to the heart. Veins are blood vessels that bring blood back to the heart. The major veins drain blood from the same organs and limbs that the major arteries supply. Fluid is also brought back to the heart via the lymphatic system.

The structure of the different types of blood vessels reflects their function or layers. There are three distinct layers, or tunics, that form the walls of blood vessels (Figure 2). The first tunic is a smooth, inner lining of endothelial cells that are in contact with the red blood cells. The endothelial tunic is continuous with the endocardium of the heart. In capillaries, this single layer of cells is the location of diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the endothelial cells and red blood cells, as well as the exchange site via endocytosis and exocytosis. The movement of materials at the site of capillaries is regulated by vasoconstriction, narrowing of the blood vessels, and vasodilation, widening of the blood vessels; this is important in the overall regulation of blood pressure.

Illustrations A and B show that arteries and veins consist of three layers, an inner endothelium called the tunica intima, a middle layer of smooth muscle and elastic fibers called the tunica media, and an outer layer of connective tissues and elastic fibers called the tunica externa. The outer two layers are thinner in the vein than in the artery. The central cavity is called the lumen. Veins have valves that extend into the lumen.

Figure 2. Arteries and veins consist of three layers: an outer tunica externa, a middle tunica media, and an inner tunica intima. Capillaries consist of a single layer of epithelial cells, the tunica intima. (credit: modification of work by NCI, NIH)

Veins and arteries both have two further tunics that surround the endothelium: the middle tunic is composed of smooth muscle and the outermost layer is connective tissue (collagen and elastic fibers). The elastic connective tissue stretches and supports the blood vessels, and the smooth muscle layer helps regulate blood flow by altering vascular resistance through vasoconstriction and vasodilation. The arteries have thicker smooth muscle and connective tissue than the veins to accommodate the higher pressure and speed of freshly pumped blood. The veins are thinner walled as the pressure and rate of flow are much lower. In addition, veins are structurally different than arteries in that veins have valves to prevent the backflow of blood. Because veins have to work against gravity to get blood back to the heart, contraction of skeletal muscle assists with the flow of blood back to the heart.