OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
Either an insufficient or an excessive production of platelets can lead to severe disease or death. An insufficient number of platelets, called thrombocytopenia, typically results in the inability of blood to form clots. This can lead to excessive bleeding, even from minor wounds.
Another reason for failure of the blood to clot is the inadequate production of functional amounts of one or more clotting factors. This is the case in the genetic disorder hemophilia, which is actually a group of related disorders, the most common of which is hemophilia A, accounting for approximately 80 percent of cases. This disorder results in the inability to synthesize sufficient quantities of factor VIII. Hemophilia B is the second most common form, accounting for approximately 20 percent of cases. In this case, there is a deficiency of factor IX. Both of these defects are linked to the X chromosome and are typically passed from a healthy (carrier) mother to her male offspring, since males are XY. Females would need to inherit a defective gene from each parent to manifest the disease, since they are XX. Patients with hemophilia bleed from even minor internal and external wounds, and leak blood into joint spaces after exercise and into urine and stool. Hemophilia C is a rare condition that is triggered by an autosomal (not sex) chromosome that renders factor XI nonfunctional. It is not a true recessive condition, since even individuals with a single copy of the mutant gene show a tendency to bleed. Regular infusions of clotting factors isolated from healthy donors can help prevent bleeding in hemophiliac patients. At some point, genetic therapy will become a viable option.
In contrast to the disorders characterized by coagulation failure is thrombocytosis, also mentioned earlier, a condition characterized by excessive numbers of platelets that increases the risk for excessive clot formation, a condition known as thrombosis. A thrombus (plural = thrombi) is an aggregation of platelets, erythrocytes, and even WBCs typically trapped within a mass of fibrin strands. While the formation of a clot is normal following the hemostatic mechanism just described, thrombi can form within an intact or only slightly damaged blood vessel. In a large vessel, a thrombus will adhere to the vessel wall and decrease the flow of blood, and is referred to as a mural thrombus. In a small vessel, it may actually totally block the flow of blood and is termed an occlusive thrombus. Thrombi are most commonly caused by vessel damage to the endothelial lining, which activates the clotting mechanism. These may include venous stasis, when blood in the veins, particularly in the legs, remains stationary for long periods. This is one of the dangers of long airplane flights in crowded conditions and may lead to deep vein thrombosis or atherosclerosis, an accumulation of debris in arteries. Thrombophilia, also called hypercoagulation, is a condition in which there is a tendency to form thrombosis. This may be familial (genetic) or acquired. Acquired forms include the autoimmune disease lupus, immune reactions to heparin, polycythemia vera, thrombocytosis, sickle cell disease, pregnancy, and even obesity. A thrombus can seriously impede blood flow to or from a region and will cause a local increase in blood pressure. If flow is to be maintained, the heart will need to generate a greater pressure to overcome the resistance.
When a portion of a thrombus breaks free from the vessel wall and enters the circulation, it is referred to as an embolus. An embolus that is carried through the bloodstream can be large enough to block a vessel critical to a major organ. When it becomes trapped, an embolus is called an embolism. In the heart, brain, or lungs, an embolism may accordingly cause a heart attack, a stroke, or a pulmonary embolism. These are medical emergencies.
Among the many known biochemical activities of aspirin is its role as an anticoagulant. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is very effective at inhibiting the aggregation of platelets. It is routinely administered during a heart attack or stroke to reduce the adverse effects. Physicians sometimes recommend that patients at risk for cardiovascular disease take a low dose of aspirin on a daily basis as a preventive measure. However, aspirin can also lead to serious side effects, including increasing the risk of ulcers. A patient is well advised to consult a physician before beginning any aspirin regimen.
A class of drugs collectively known as thrombolytic agents can help speed up the degradation of an abnormal clot. If a thrombolytic agent is administered to a patient within 3 hours following a thrombotic stroke, the patient’s prognosis improves significantly. However, some strokes are not caused by thrombi, but by hemorrhage. Thus, the cause must be determined before treatment begins. Tissue plasminogen activator is an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of plasminogen to plasmin, the primary enzyme that breaks down clots. It is released naturally by endothelial cells but is also used in clinical medicine. New research is progressing using compounds isolated from the venom of some species of snakes, particularly vipers and cobras, which may eventually have therapeutic value as thrombolytic agents.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology