The Circulatory Shock


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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The loss of too much blood may lead to circulatory shock, a life-threatening condition in which the circulatory system is unable to maintain blood flow to adequately supply sufficient oxygen and other nutrients to the tissues to maintain cellular metabolism. It should not be confused with emotional or psychological shock. Typically, the patient in circulatory shock will demonstrate an increased heart rate but decreased blood pressure, but there are cases in which blood pressure will remain normal. Urine output will fall dramatically, and the patient may appear confused or lose consciousness. Urine output less than 1 mL/kg body weight/hour is cause for concern. Unfortunately, shock is an example of a positive-feedback loop that, if uncorrected, may lead to the death of the patient.

There are several recognized forms of shock:

• Hypovolemic shock in adults is typically caused by hemorrhage, although in children it may be caused by fluid losses related to severe vomiting or diarrhea. Other causes for hypovolemic shock include extensive burns, exposure to some toxins, and excessive urine loss related to diabetes insipidus or ketoacidosis. Typically, patients present with a rapid, almost tachycardic heart rate; a weak pulse often described as “thread;” cool, clammy skin, particularly in the extremities, due to restricted peripheral blood flow; rapid, shallow breathing; hypothermia; thirst; and dry mouth. Treatments generally involve providing intravenous fluids to restore the patient to normal function and various drugs such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to raise blood pressure.

• Cardiogenic shock results from the inability of the heart to maintain cardiac output. Most often, it results from a myocardial infarction (heart attack), but it may also be caused by arrhythmias, valve disorders, cardiomyopathies, cardiac failure, or simply insufficient flow of blood through the cardiac vessels. Treatment involves repairing the damage to the heart or its vessels to resolve the underlying cause, rather than treating cardiogenic shock directly.

• Vascular shock occurs when arterioles lose their normal muscular tone and dilate dramatically. It may arise from a variety of causes, and treatments almost always involve fluid replacement and medications, called inotropic or pressor agents, which restore tone to the muscles of the vessels. In addition, eliminating or at least alleviating the underlying cause of the condition is required. This might include antibiotics and antihistamines, or select steroids, which may aid in the repair of nerve damage. A common cause is sepsis (or septicemia), also called “blood poisoning,” which is a widespread bacterial infection that results in an organismal-level inflammatory response known as septic shock. Neurogenic shock is a form of vascular shock that occurs with cranial or spinal injuries that damage the cardiovascular centers in the medulla oblongata or the nervous fibers originating from this region. Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic response that causes the widespread release of histamines, triggering vasodilation throughout the body.

• Obstructive shock, as the name would suggest, occurs when a significant portion of the vascular system is blocked. It is not always recognized as a distinct condition and may be grouped with cardiogenic shock, including pulmonary embolism and cardiac tamponade. Treatments depend upon the underlying cause and, in addition to administering fluids intravenously, often include the administration of anticoagulants, removal of fluid from the pericardial cavity, or air from the thoracic cavity, and surgery as required. The most common cause is a pulmonary embolism, a clot that lodges in the pulmonary vessels and interrupts blood flow. Other causes include stenosis of the aortic valve; cardiac tamponade, in which excess fluid in the pericardial cavity interferes with the ability of the heart to fully relax and fill with blood (resulting in decreased preload); and a pneumothorax, in which an excessive amount of air is present in the thoracic cavity, outside of the lungs, which interferes with venous return, pulmonary function, and delivery of oxygen to the tissues.


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: