The Circulatory System

Part II: The Heart and Circulation of Blood


1. Location of the Heart

2. Structure of the Heart

3. The Valves

4. Branching Blood Vessels

5. The Circulation of Blood

* picture of the heart and its parts

* picture of the body and some of its organs

Location of the Heart

The center of the circulatory system is the heart, which is the main pumping mechanism. The heart is made of muscle. The heart is shaped something like a cone, with a pointed bottom and a round top. It is hollow so that it can fill up with blood. An adult’s heart is about the size of a large orange and weighs a little less than a pound.

The heart is in the middle of the chest. It fits snugly between the two lungs. It is held in place by the blood vessels that carry the blood to and from its chambers. The heart is tipped somewhat so that there is a little more of it on the left side than on the right. The pointed tip at the bottom of the heart touches the front wall of the chest. Every time the heart beats it goes “thump” against the chest wall. You can feel the thumps if you press there with your hand. You can also listen to them with your ear.

* picture of the heart and its parts

* picture of the body and some of its organs

Structure of the Heart

If you looked inside your heart, you would see that a wall of muscle divides it down the middle, into a left half and a right half. The muscular wall is called a septum. The septum is solid so that blood cannot flow back and forth between the left and right halves of the heart. Another wall separates the rounded top part of the heart from the cone-shaped bottom part. So there are actually four chambers (spaces) inside the heart. Each top chamber is called an atrium (plural: atria). The bottom chambers are called ventricles. The atria are often referred to as holding chambers, while the ventricles are called pumping chambers. Thus, each side of the heart forms its own separate system, a right heart and a left heart. Each half consists of an atrium and a ventricle, and blood can flow from the top chamber to the bottom chamber, or ventricle, but not between the two sides.

The Valves

Blood can flow from the atria down into the ventricles because there are openings in the walls that separate them. These openings are called valves because they open in one direction like trapdoors to let the blood pass through. Then they close, so the blood cannot flow backwards into the atria. With this system, blood always flows in only one direction inside the heart. There are also valves at the bottom of the large arteries that carry blood away from the heart: the aorta and the pulmonary artery. These valves keep the blood from flowing backward into the heart once it has been pumped out.

* picture of the heart and its parts

* picture of the body and some of its organs

Branching Blood Vessels

The heart is a pump whose walls are made of thick muscle. They can squeeze (contract) to send blood rushing out. The blood does not spill all over the place when it leaves the heart. Instead, it flows smoothly in tubes called blood vessels. First, the blood flows into tubes called arteries. The arteries leaving the heart are thick tubes. But the arteries soon branch again and again to form smaller and smaller tubes. The smallest blood vessels, called capillaries, form a fine network of tiny vessels throughout the body. The capillaries have extremely thin walls so that the blood that they carry can come into close contact with the body tissues. The tiny red blood cells can then pass easily through the walls of the capillaries to deliver the oxygen they carry to nearby cells. As the blood flows through the capillaries, it also collects carbon dioxide waste from the body cells. The capillaries containing carbon dioxide return this used blood to the heart through a different series of branching tubes: The capillaries join together to form small veins. The veins, in turn, unite with each other to form larger veins until the blood from the body is finally collected into the large veins that empty into the heart. So the blood vessels of the body carry blood in a circle: moving away from the heart in arteries, traveling to various parts of the body in capillaries, and going back to the heart in veins. The heart is the pump that makes this happen.

* picture of the heart and its parts

* picture of the body and some of its organs

The Circulation of Blood

The human circulatory system is really a two-part system whose purpose is to bring oxygen-bearing blood to all the tissues of the body. When the heart contracts it pushes the blood out into two major loops or cycles. In the systemic loop, the blood circulates into the body’s systems, bringing oxygen to all its organs, structures and tissues and collecting carbon dioxide waste. In the pulmonary loop, the blood circulates to and from the lungs, to release the carbon dioxide and pick up new oxygen. The systemic cycle is controlled by the left side of the heart, the pulmonary cycle by the right side of the heart. Let’s look at what happens during each cycle:

The systemic loop begins when the oxygen-rich blood coming from the lungs enters the upper left chamber of the heart, the left atrium. As the chamber fills, it presses open the mitral valve and the blood flows down into the left ventricle. When the ventricles contract during a heartbeat, the blood on the left side is forced into the aorta. This largest artery of the body is an inch wide. The blood leaving the aorta brings oxygen to all the body’s cells through the network of ever smaller arteries and capillaries. The used blood from the body returns to the heart through the network of veins. All of the blood from the body is eventually collected into the two largest veins: the superior vena cava, which receives blood from the upper body, and the inferior vena cava, which receives blood from the lower body region. Both venae cavae empty the blood into the right atrium of the heart.

From here the blood begins its journey through the pulmonary cycle. From the right atrium the blood descends into the right ventricle through the tricuspid valve. When the ventricle contracts, the blood is pushed into the pulmonary artery that branches into two main parts: one going to the left lung, one to the right lung. The fresh, oxygen-rich blood returns to the left atrium of the heart through the pulmonary veins.

Although the circulatory system is made up of two cycles, both happen at the same time. The contraction of the heart muscle starts in the two atria, which push the blood into the ventricles. Then the walls of the ventricles squeeze together and force the blood out into the arteries: the aorta to the body and the pulmonary artery to the lungs. Afterwards, the heart muscle relaxes, allowing blood to flow in from the veins and fill the atria again. In healthy people the normal (resting) heart rate is about 72 beats per minute, but it can go much higher during strenuous exercise. Scientists have estimated that it takes about 30 seconds for a given portion of the blood to complete the entire cycle: from lungs to heart to body, back to the heart and out to the lungs.

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