The heart ejects oxygen-rich blood under high pressure out of the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, through the largest artery, the aorta. Smaller arteries branch off from the aorta, leading to various parts of the body. These smaller arteries in turn branch out into even smaller arteries, called arterioles. Branches of arterioles become progressively smaller in diameter, eventually forming the capillaries. Once blood reaches the capillary level, blood pressure is greatly reduced.
Capillaries have extremely thin walls that permit dissolved oxygen and nutrients from the blood to diffuse across to a fluid, known as interstitial fluid, that fills the gaps between the cells of tissues or organs. The dissolved oxygen and nutrients then enter the cells from the interstitial fluid by diffusion across the cell membranes. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide and other wastes leave the cell, diffuse through the interstitial fluid, cross the capillary walls, and enter the blood. In this way, the blood delivers nutrients and removes wastes without leaving the capillary tube.
After delivering oxygen to tissues and absorbing wastes, the deoxygenated blood in the capillaries then starts the return trip to the heart. The capillaries merge to form tiny veins, called venules. These veins in turn join together to form progressively larger veins. Ultimately, the veins converge into two large veins: the inferior vena cava, bringing blood from the lower half of the body; and the superior vena cava, bringing blood from the upper half. Both of these two large veins join at the right atrium of the heart.
Because the pressure is dissipated in the arterioles and capillaries, blood in veins flows back to the heart at very low pressure, often running uphill when a person is standing. Flow against gravity is made possible by the one-way valves, located several centimeters apart, in the veins. When surrounding muscles contract, for example in the calf or arm, the muscles squeeze blood back toward the heart. If the one-way valves work properly, blood travels only toward the heart and cannot lapse backward. Veins with defective valves, which allow the blood to flow backward, become enlarged or dilated to form varicose veins.