Comparison of vascular distensibility in the upper and lower extremity

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Because of the great differences in hydrostatic pressure acting along the blood vessels in the erect posture, leg vessels are exposed to greater transmural pressures than arm vessels. The in vivo pressure–distension relationship of arteries, arterioles and veins in the arm were compared with those of the leg.


Experiments were performed with the subject (n = 11) positioned in a pressure chamber with an arm or lower leg (test limb) extended at heart level through a hole in the chamber door. Intravascular pressure in the arm/lower leg was increased by stepwise increasing chamber pressure to +180 and +210 mmHg, respectively. Diameters of blood vessels and arterial flow were measured using ultrasonographic/Doppler techniques. Changes in forearm and lower leg volumes were assessed using an impedance technique. The subject rated perceived pain in the test limb.


The brachial and radial arteries were found to be more distensible than the posterior tibial artery (P < 0.001). Likewise, the distension was more pronounced in the cephalic than in the great saphenous vein (P < 0.001). In the brachial artery, but not in the posterior tibial artery, flow increased markedly at the highest levels of distending pressure (P < 0.001). At the highest intravascular pressures, the rate of change in tissue impedance was greater in the forearm than the lower leg (P < 0.01). At any given level of markedly increased pressure, pain was rated higher in the arm than in the leg (P < 0.001).


It seems that the wall stiffness of arteries, pre-capillary resistance vessels and veins adapts to meet the long-term demands imposed by the hydrostatic pressure acting locally on the vessel walls.

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