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What is Thrombocytopenia? - Definition, Causes & Treatment
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Lesson Transcript Thrombocytopenia is a blood disorder in which there are too few platelets in the blood. This results in problems with blood clotting. Learn about the causes of thrombocytopenia as well as treatment options.
Thrombocytopenia and Platelets If you were riding your bicycle down the street and accidentally ran over a nail, the result would most likely be a flat tire. Fortunately, small tears in bicycle tires can be fixed with a simple patch kit, which consists of a round piece of rubber and some glue. Your body has its own patch kit that it uses to repair your blood vessels when they get tears. The body's patch kit is made up of platelets, which are circulating cell fragments that help with blood clotting. These tiny platelets are made in the bone marrow and then sent into circulation where they drift around until they are called into action by a break somewhere in the blood vessel wall. Platelets are very good at stopping bleeding, thanks to their ability to gather and stick together. But if you have a condition called thrombocytopenia, then your blood does not have enough platelets and you may have trouble controlling bleeding. The causes and treatments of this condition will be the focus of this lesson.
What Is Thrombocytopenia? The term thrombocytopenia is kind of long, but you can easily remember what it means if you break it down. The first part of the word, 'thrombo', is actually the Greek word that refers to blood clotting. In the middle we see the word 'cyto,' which means cell, and the term ends with 'penia,' which means deficiency. Put the parts together, and we see that thrombocytopenia literally means blood clotting cell deficiency. As you can imagine, if you have a deficiency of these blood clotting platelets, then bleeding becomes somewhat of an issue. While it is possible to have thrombocytopenia and no symptoms if your case is mild, for those with more severe cases, bruising and bleeding may be hard to control. Some people with this condition could experience prolonged bleeding from a cut, bleeding from the gums or nosebleeds, and women may experience an unusually heavy menstrual flow.
Causes: Low Platelet Production These symptoms are related to the fact that a person with thrombocytopenia does not have enough platelets to stop bleeding once it starts. So, you might be wondering, how many is enough? Well, normally, you have about 150,000 to 350,000 platelets per microliter of blood. If your count drops below 150,000 platelets per microliter then you have thrombocytopenia. For the most part, the lower the count, the more severe your symptoms. This drop in platelets can be caused by different factors, but, in general, we see that causes of thrombocytopenia can be grouped in three ways: the body does not produce enough platelets, the body destroys the platelets, or the platelets get trapped in the spleen. Let's take a look at each of these causes by starting with a look at what could cause a decrease in production of platelets. As mentioned, platelets are made in the bone marrow, which is the spongy tissue found inside of bone. So, any condition that negatively affects the bone marrow could reduce the number of platelets produced. This would include blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, as well as the treatments used to fight these cancers: chemotherapy drugs and radiation. We also see that exposure to toxic chemicals, like benzene, which is a common chemical used in many manufacturing processes, can damage bone marrow, as well as some types of anemia, viral infections, like HIV, and heavy alcohol use.
Causes: Platelet Destruction If none of these conditions or factors are present, then your bone marrow might be making plenty of platelets, but the danger of thrombocytopenia is not limited to production. It can also result when the body destroys the platelets faster than they can be replenished. This can happen during pregnancy. Although the mechanism is not fully understood, about five percent of women will develop a mild form of this condition near the end of their pregnancy. Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the body's immune system malfunctions and attacks normal, healthy cells. If the cells that get attacked are platelets, then thrombocytopenia will result. In a somewhat similar fashion, we see that some medications can cause an immune reaction that tricks the body into thinking that the healthy platelets are foreign bodies that must be destroyed. Severe bacterial infections can poison the blood, leading to a low platelet count, and surgery involving the heart or blood vessels can destroy platelets.
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