Blood Vessels

Heart: The Engine of Life Educational Resources—The Franklin Institute

Blood vessels may be tiny but they cover a lot of ground.

The smallest blood vessels measure only five micrometers. To give you some perspective, a strand of human hair measures about 17 micrometers.

But if you took all the blood vessels out of an average child and laid them out in one line, the line would stretch over 60,000 miles. An adult’s would be closer to 100,000 miles long.

There are three kinds of blood vessels: arteries, veins, and capillaries. Each of these plays a very specific role in the circulation process.

Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart. They’re tough on the outside but they contain a smooth interior layer of epithelial cells that allows blood to flow easily. Arteries also contain a strong, muscular middle layer that helps pump blood through the body.

Capillaries connect the arteries to veins. The arteries deliver the oxygen-rich blood to the capillaries, where the actual exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. The capillaries then deliver the waste-rich blood to the veins for transport back to the lungs and heart.

Veins carry the blood back to the heart. They’re similar to arteries but not as strong or as thick. Unlike arteries, veins contain valves that ensure blood flows in only one direction. (Arteries don’t require valves because pressure from the heart is so strong that blood is only able to flow in one direction.) Valves also help blood travel back to the heart against the force of gravity.