Metarterioles and Capillary Beds

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In a capillary bed, arterioles give rise to metarterioles. Precapillary sphincters located at the junction of a metarteriole with a capillary regulate blood flow. A thoroughfare channel connects the metarteriole to a venule. An arteriovenous anastomosis, which directly connects the arteriole with the venule, is shown at the bottom.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

A metarteriole is a type of vessel that has structural characteristics of both an arteriole and a capillary. Slightly larger than the typical capillary, the smooth muscle of the tunica media of the metarteriole is not continuous but forms rings of smooth muscle (sphincters) prior to the entrance to the capillaries. Each metarteriole arises from a terminal arteriole and branches to supply blood to a capillary bed that may consist of 10–100 capillaries.

The precapillary sphincters, circular smooth muscle cells that surround the capillary at its origin with the metarteriole, tightly regulate the flow of blood from a metarteriole to the capillaries it supplies. Their function is critical: If all of the capillary beds in the body were to open simultaneously, they would collectively hold every drop of blood in the body and there would be none in the arteries, arterioles, venules, veins, or the heart itself. Normally, the precapillary sphincters are closed. When the surrounding tissues need oxygen and have excess waste products, the precapillary sphincters open, allowing blood to flow through and exchange to occur before closing once more (Figure 20.6). If all of the precapillary sphincters in a capillary bed are closed, blood will flow from the metarteriole directly into a thoroughfare channel and then into the venous circulation, bypassing the capillary bed entirely. This creates what is known as a vascular shunt. In addition, an arteriovenous anastomosis may bypass the capillary bed and lead directly to the venous system.

Although you might expect blood flow through a capillary bed to be smooth, in reality, it moves with an irregular, pulsating flow. This pattern is called vasomotion and is regulated by chemical signals that are triggered in response to changes in internal conditions, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen ion, and lactic acid levels. For example, during strenuous exercise when oxygen levels decrease and carbon dioxide, hydrogen ion, and lactic acid levels all increase, the capillary beds in skeletal muscle are open, as they would be in the digestive system when nutrients are present in the digestive tract. During sleep or rest periods, vessels in both areas are largely closed; they open only occasionally to allow oxygen and nutrient supplies to travel to the tissues to maintain basic life processes.


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: