11 Amazing Facts About Veins

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

Beneath your skin, and deeper within your body, run networks of veins. These thin, tube-like structures are an essential part of the circulatory system, which distributes blood and nutrients throughout the body. What Thomas E. Eidson, a phlebologist (vein disease specialist) at Atlas Vein Care in Arlington, Texas, finds most compelling about veins is "how absolutely intricate and fragile the circulatory system can seem and yet at the same time be so resilient and adaptive."

1. VEINS ARE ONE OF THREE KINDS OF BLOOD VESSELS.

Three types of blood vessels make up the human circulatory system: arteries, veins, and capillaries. All three of these vessels transport blood, oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to organs and cells. While arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to the tissues of the body, veins carry oxygen-depleted blood from the tissues back to the heart, and in fact have special valves that help them to achieve this directional flow. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels that connect arteries to veins and allow nutrients in the blood to diffuse to the body's tissues.

2. A SINGLE VEIN IS COMPRISED OF THREE LAYERS.

Veins, small as they are, consist of three layers. According to Eidson, these layers are known as the tunica adventitia, tunica media, and tunica intima. The tunica adventitia is the tough outer layer of arteries and veins and is made mainly of connective tissues. The middle layer, tunica media, is all smooth muscle and elastic fibers. This layer is thinner in veins than in arteries. The innermost layer, tunica intima, comes in direct contact with blood as it flows through the vein. This structure is made up of smooth cells and has a hollow center known as the lumen.

3. OUR BODIES CONTAIN UP TO 100,000 MILES OF BLOOD VESSELS.

All the arteries, veins, and capillaries of a human child, stretched end to end, are estimated to wrap around the Earth about 2.5 times (the equivalent of about 60,000 miles). The amount of blood vessels in a human adult would circle our planet four times, equaling 100,000 miles, according to Eidson.

4. CAPILLARIES ARE SMALLER THAN THE WIDTH OF A HUMAN HAIR.

Capillaries are tiny—at their smallest, they're less than a third of the thickness of a human hair. But to really put it into perspective, consider that when red blood cells flow through capillaries, "[they] must travel through them one cell at a time in a single-file line," Eidson says.

5. PHYSICIANS HAD THE CIRCULATORY SYSTEM ALL WRONG UNTIL THE 17TH CENTURY.

"Physicians followed an incorrect model of the circulatory system proposed by Greek physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon from about the 2nd century CE until the 1600s," Eidson says. According to a paper in the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, Galen thought there were two systems: one in which the liver, not the heart, produced blood that was distributed in the body centrifugally, and another where arteries carried air from the lungs and more blood to tissues. "Blood was not seen to circulate but rather to slowly ebb and flow," author W.C. Aird wrote. This attitude prevailed until 1628, when English physician William Harvey first correctly described the circulatory system and the function of the heart.

6. THE BODY CAN FORM NEW VESSELS WHEN ONE IS BLOCKED.

Eidson says the body can form new blood vessels if a pathway gets blocked, a process called angiogenesis or neovascularization. On the positive side, this is the process by which flesh wounds heal, drawing nutrients and oxygen from the nearest healthy capillaries to the site of those that are damaged; this isn't too hard given how numerous capillaries are in the body. On the negative side, this same process can lead to corneal neovascularization, in which new blood vessels invade the cornea from the limbus, a part of the eye where the cornea meets the sclera—the white part of the eye. The extra blood vessels can cause inflammation and scarring of the cornea, and even result in blindness.

7. ONE PHYSICIAN PERFORMED A PIONEERING EXPERIMENT ON VEINS IN THE ARM—HIS OWN.

German physician Werner Forssmann performed a cardiac catheterization on himself in 1929. In this procedure, a thin tube called a catheter is inserted into one of the large blood vessels in the arm that leads to the heart. The medical community at the time believed studying the heart was highly unorthodox, but Forssmann was determined to prove them wrong. If the procedure succeeded, Forssmann would be able to show that a catheter could assess the pressure in the organ and how well the heart is working.

He made an incision on the inside of his left elbow and threaded the thin tube into his heart—and had a technician take an X-ray to prove the penetration was a success. Then he calmly removed the catheter from his arm with no side effects. Now, "it's a procedure performed in the U.S. approximately 1 million times per year," Eidson says. Forssmann also went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1956, shutting up his detractors.

8. STRONG VEINS ARE ESSENTIAL TO A STRONG BODY.

Veins return oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart against the force of gravity. "If veins are too weak—a condition called venous insufficiency—blood can pool in the legs and skin causing swelling, pain, discoloration, and wounds," says Albert Malvehy, a venous and lymphatic specialist and phlebology sonographer in Delray Beach, Florida. Chronic venous insufficiency is more common in people who are obese, pregnant, or who have a family history of the problem. It can also be caused by high blood pressure in the leg veins, as a result of sitting or standing for long stints; not enough exercise, smoking, or deep vein thrombosis (blood clots). Depending on the severity, treatments may range from medication to surgery.

9. VARICOSE VEINS ARE CAUSED BY DAMAGED VALVES.

When venous valves are damaged, blood can flow in the wrong direction and lead to stretched-out, bulging veins, Gregory P. Kezele, the medical director of Vein Clinics of Cleveland, tells Mental Floss. Varicose veins, which can range in color from purplish to neutral, appear twisted and gnarled, and may be raised on the skin's surface. (Don't confuse them with spider veins, which are clusters of bluish or reddish veins near the surface of the skin that resemble webs, hence the name.) Conditions like pregnancy, obesity, and genetic predisposition can cause them. Once varicose veins appear—usually on the legs—they require a medical procedure to get rid of them.

Veins are a critical part of normal circulation in the body, so varicose veins can be more than just a cosmetic issue. "They can be a sign of a deeper circulation problem," Malvehy says. "People with varicose veins, leg pain, restless legs syndrome, leg wounds, and leg swelling should be checked by a vein specialist."

One in five people have vein disease. As recently as 10 years ago, there were few treatments to offer varicose vein sufferers except for vein stripping surgery, in which problematic veins are removed. Malvehy says that over the past decade, "there has been a revolution in treatment, such that almost all vein issues can be treated in the office with no downtime."

One common treatment is sclerotherapy, in which a liquid solution is forced into the bulging vein to stop the flow of blood. The vein will eventually turn into scar tissue and fade away, though follow-up treatments might be needed.

Another treatment is thermal ablation, performed using ultrasound guidance. Kezele explains that a physician will insert a small catheter into the diseased veins, which then delivers heat; the heat will close off blood flow to the problem veins and improve circulation as blood diverts to healthy veins.

10. AN EARLY DEPICTION OF VEIN DISEASE APPEARS IN A SCULPTURE FROM 340 BCE.

According to Kezele, the first depiction of vein disease appears on a Greek tablet dating to the 4th century BCE. The carving, from the sanctuary of Amynos, shows a man clutching a giant, disembodied leg with a bulging vein. Kezele suggests on his website that "it shows the Greek official Lysimachides dedicating a fake leg suffering from a varicose vein to Amynos," an Athenian hero revered as a healer.

11. VEINS MIGHT "POP OUT" WHEN YOU EXERCISE.

There are lots of theories on why athletes often have big, bodaciously bulging veins visible on their arms or legs after they work out. The ropy look is completely normal and temporary. Writing in Scientific American, physiology professor Mark A. W. Andrews said that a likely cause of protruding veins is arterial blood pressure during exercise. Blood that would otherwise be resting in capillaries is forced out by the pressure into the surrounding muscle. That process—called filtration—makes the muscles swell, which pushes nearby veins closer to the skin's surface so they take on a bulging appearance. The process is more noticeable in athletes and body builders with very little subcutaneous fat.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

What Purpose Does the Belly Button Serve?

misuma/iStock via Getty Images
misuma/iStock via Getty Images

While your eyelashes are protecting your eyes, your lungs are letting you breathe, and virtually every other part of your body—inside and out—is performing its own relatively well-known task, your belly button is just sitting there collecting lint. And while it’s true that your navel served its most important purpose before you were born, it’s not totally useless now.

According to ZME Science, back when you were a fetus, your belly button was more of a belly portal: Your umbilical cord extended from it and connected you to the placenta on your mother’s uterine wall. That way, the placenta could channel nutrients and oxygen to you through the cord, and you could send back waste.

Your umbilical cord was cut when you were born, creating a tiny bulge that left behind some scar tissue after it healed. That scar tissue is your belly button, navel, or umbilicus. Though you may have heard that the shape of your belly button is a direct result of the scissor skills of the doctor who delivered you, that’s not true. Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that a belly button's shape “has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby’s body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie.” About 90 percent of people have innies.

Regardless of how your belly button looks, you probably don’t use it on a daily basis. However, if you’ve studied anatomy, medicine, or a related field, you might recognize it as the central point by which the abdomen is divided into the following quadrants: right upper, left upper, right lower, and left lower. Another way of classifying that area is into nine regions—including the hypochondriac, lumbar, iliac, epigastric, and hypogastric regions—with the umbilical region at the very center.

Abdominopelvic regions diagram
Blausen Medical, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Your belly button can also serve as the opening for laparoscopic surgery, which can save you from having a scar elsewhere on your abdomen.

The navel is a great central landmark outside of medicine, too. If you’ve taken yoga or Pilates classes, you may have heard it referred to as the center of balance or center of gravity. Because it sits right on top of your abdominal muscles, your belly button is an easy marker for your instructor to mention when they want you to access your core, which helps you balance.

And, of course, belly buttons are notorious for storing quite a bit of lint, which always seems to be blue (you can learn more about that here).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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