What is the circulatory system?

Varicose veins are essentially a defect in your circulatory system, in the sense that they result in blood not going where it is supposed to. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, varicose veins are the result of faulty valves in your veins (especially in your lower legs) leading to blood pooling or flowing in the wrong direction.

In this blog, we’re going to take a step back and look at the human circulatory system as a whole. It’s perhaps easiest to think of it as the plumbing of your body, and it’s a remarkable feat of biology. At the centre of your circulatory system is your heart, which contrary to popular belief has nothing to do with falling in love.

What does the heart do?

Its true function is less glamorous, but much more important – it’s the amazingly powerful pump that pushes your blood around your body. In the average adult, the heart beats around 115 000 times per day – and it does this every single day for perhaps 70 or 80 years. Not only is it very powerful for its size (it weighs around 500g) but it is also durable. Each day, it pumps around 9 000 litres of blood, making it easily one of the hardest-working organs in your body. Believe it or not, it is actually controlled by electrical impulses within your body.

Your heart pumps blood around your body via the arteries, which carry blood away from your heart, and back again through your veins (in varicose veins, the blood struggles to travel against gravity and back up your legs towards your heart.

Both your veins and your arteries are strictly one-way blood vessels; they each have a system of valves designed to ensure that blood flows in the correct direction.

The purpose of the circulatory system

Your circulatory system works in a continuous loop, bringing vital oxygen, nutrients and hormones to all the cells in your body, and taking away waste products such as carbon dioxide. The blood is then cycled through your lungs to get rid of the CO2 and collect fresh oxygen.

As well as the major veins and arteries, your body has a great many smaller blood vessels that connect to every cell in your body; if these were laid out end-to-end, they would stretch for a distance of over 90 000km, or twice the distance around the Equator.

In your body, these are arranged rather like the branches of a tree – starting with the main arteries and then branching off into smaller and smaller blood vessels. Tiny vessels called capillaries connect the smallest arteries to the smallest veins, which is how your blood begins its return journey to the heart.

When things go wrong

Varicose veins are just one of the issues that can occur with your circulatory system, but there are several more serious problems that many people suffer from. In fact, worldwide, diseases of the circulatory system kill more people than any other cause.

Many of these issues are linked to lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise; eating healthily and being active are the best ways to protect your heart and circulatory system. Happily, they can also reduce your risk of developing varicose veins, too.

If you have concerns or questions about varicose veins, or would like to learn more about safe, effective treatment methods, contact Dr Francois Steyn on 012 993 4161 or 012 993 0911, or at francois@surgeon.co.za to arrange a consultation.