Circulatory System

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the structure and function of the circulatory system

The circulatory system is extremely important in sustaining life. It’s proper functioning is responsible for the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to all cells, as well as the removal of carbon dioxide, waste products, maintenance of optimum pH, and the mobility of the elements, proteins and cells, of the immune system. In developed countries, the two leading causes of death, myocardial infarction and stroke are each direct results of an arterial system that has been slowly and progressively compromised by years of deterioration. The circulatory system includes the heart, blood vessels, blood, lymph and lymph vessels. But we often think of it as the vascular network that connects to the primary cardiac organ, the heart. More accurately the vascular network directly connected to the heart is just blood and blood vessels, but do not be surprised to see the terms circulatory and cardiovascular used interchangeably. Here we are focusing on the heart and vascular network that transports blood.

The Heart

This illustration shows the outside of the heart. Coronary arteries and coronary veins run from the top down along the right and left sides.

Figure 1. Blood vessels of the coronary system, including the coronary arteries and veins, keep the heart musculature oxygenated.

The heart is the life-giving, ever-beating muscle in your chest. From inside the womb until death, the thump goes on. The heart for the average human will contract about 3 billion times; never resting, never stopping to take a break except for a fraction of a second between beats. At 80 years of age, a person’s heart will continue to beat an average of 100,000 times a day. Many believe that the heart is the first organ to become functional. Within weeks of conception the heart starts its mission of supplying the body with nutrients even though the embryo is no bigger than a capital letter on this page. The primary function of the heart is to pump blood through the arteries, capillaries, and veins. There are an estimated 60,000 miles of vessels throughout an adult body. Blood transports oxygen, nutrients, disease causing viruses, bacteria, hormones and has other important functions as well. The heart is the pump that keeps blood circulating properly. Americans today have many options to take care of their heart and circulatory system. Expanding medical technology has made it much easier to do so.

The heart is a hollow, muscular organ about the size of a fist. It is responsible for pumping blood through the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions. The heart is composed of cardiac muscle, an involuntary muscle tissue that is found only within this organ. The term “cardiac” (as in cardiology) means “related to the heart” and comes from the Greek word kardia, for “heart.” It has a four-chambered, double pump and is located in the thoracic cavity between the lungs. The cardiac muscle is self-exciting, meaning it has its own conduction system. This is in contrast with skeletal muscle, which requires either conscious or reflex nervous stimuli. The heart’s rhythmic contractions occur spontaneously, although the frequency or heart rate can be changed by nervous or hormonal influence such as exercise or the perception of danger.

The Cardiovascular System


Arteries are muscular blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart, oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. The pulmonary arteries will carry deoxygenated blood to the lungs and the systemic arteries will carry oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. Arteries have a thick wall that consists of three layers. The inside layer is called the endothelium, the middle layer is mostly smooth muscle and the outside layer is connective tissue. The artery walls are thick so that when blood enters under pressure the walls can expand.


An arteriole is a small artery that extends and leads to capillaries. Arterioles have thick smooth muscular walls. These smooth muscles are able to contract (causing vessel constriction) and relax (causing vessel dilation). This contracting and relaxing affects blood pressure; the higher number of vessels dilated, the lower blood pressure will be. Arterioles are just visible to the naked eye.


An artery branching off into an arteriole, which branches into a capillary bed. The start of each capillary has a sphincter regulating flow through it. The capillaries converge into a venule, which joins a vein.

Figure 2. Capillaries

Capillaries are the smallest of a body’s vessels; they connect arteries and veins, and most closely interact with tissues. They are very prevalent in the body; total surface area is about 6,300 square meters. Because of this, no cell is very far from a capillary, no more than 50 micrometers away. The walls of capillaries are composed of a single layer of cells, the endothelium, which is the inner lining of all the vessels. This layer is so thin that molecules such as oxygen, water and lipids can pass through them by diffusion and enter the tissues. Waste products such as carbon dioxide and urea can diffuse back into the blood to be carried away for removal from the body.

The “capillary bed” is the network of capillaries present throughout the body. These beds are able to be “opened” and “closed” at any given time, according to need. This process is called autoregulation and capillary beds usually carry no more than 25 percent of the amount of blood it could hold at any time. The more metabolically active the cells, the more capillaries it will require to supply nutrients.


Veins carry blood to the heart. The pulmonary veins will carry oxygenated blood to the heart awhile the systemic veins will carry deoxygenated to the heart. Most of the blood volume is found in the venous system; about 70% at any given time. The veins outer walls have the same three layers as the arteries, differing only because there is a lack of smooth muscle in the inner layer and less connective tissue on the outer layer. Veins have low blood pressure compared to arteries and need the help of skeletal muscles to bring blood back to the heart. Most veins have one-way valves called venous valves to prevent backflow caused by gravity. They also have a thick collagen outer layer, which helps maintain blood pressure and stop blood pooling. If a person is standing still for long periods or is bedridden, blood can accumulate in veins and can cause varicose veins. The hollow internal cavity in which the blood flows is called the lumen. A muscular layer allows veins to contract, which puts more blood into circulation. Veins are used medically as points of access to the blood stream, permitting the withdrawal of blood specimens (venipuncture) for testing purposes, and enabling the infusion of fluid, electrolytes, nutrition, and medications (intravenous delivery).


A venule is a small vein that allows deoxygenated blood to return from the capillary beds to the larger blood veins, except in the pulmonary circuit were the blood is oxygenated. Venules have three layers; they have the same makeup as arteries with less smooth muscle, making them thinner.

Video Review

Watch this video for a quick survey of the human circulatory system:

Try It


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