The Tunica Media

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The tunica media is the substantial middle layer of the vessel wall. It is generally the thickest layer in arteries, and it is much thicker in arteries than it is in veins. The tunica media consists of layers of smooth muscle supported by connective tissue that is primarily made up of elastic fibers, most of which are arranged in circular sheets. Toward the outer portion of the tunic, there are also layers of longitudinal muscle. Contraction and relaxation of the circular muscles decrease and increase the diameter of the vessel lumen, respectively. Specifically in arteries, vasoconstriction decreases blood flow as the smooth muscle in the walls of the tunica media contracts, making the lumen narrower and increasing blood pressure. Similarly, vasodilation increases blood flow as the smooth muscle relaxes, allowing the lumen to widen and blood pressure to drop. Both vasoconstriction and vasodilation are regulated in part by small vascular nerves, known as nervi vasorum, or “nerves of the vessel,” that run within the walls of blood vessels. These are generally all sympathetic fibers, although some trigger vasodilation and others induce vasoconstriction, depending upon the nature of the neurotransmitter and receptors located on the target cell. Parasympathetic stimulation does trigger vasodilation as well as erection during sexual arousal in the external genitalia of both sexes. Nervous control over vessels tends to be more generalized than the specific targeting of individual blood vessels. Local controls, discussed later, account for this phenomenon. (Seek additional content for more information on these dynamic aspects of the autonomic nervous system.) Hormones and local chemicals also control blood vessels. Together, these neural and chemical mechanisms reduce or increase blood flow in response to changing body conditions, from exercise to hydration. Regulation of both blood flow and blood pressure is discussed in detail later in this chapter.

The smooth muscle layers of the tunica media are supported by a framework of collagenous fibers that also binds the tunica media to the inner and outer tunics. Along with the collagenous fibers are large numbers of elastic fibers that appear as wavy lines in prepared slides. Separating the tunica media from the outer tunica externa in larger arteries is the external elastic membrane (also called the external elastic lamina), which also appears wavy in slides. This structure is not usually seen in smaller arteries, nor is it seen in veins.


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:


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