The blood from the heart is carried through the body by a complex network of blood vessels (Figure 16.12). Arteries take blood away from the heart. The main artery of the systemic circulation is the aorta; it branches into major arteries that take blood to different limbs and organs. The aorta and arteries near the heart have heavy but elastic walls that respond to and smooth out the pressure differences caused by the beating heart. Arteries farther away from the heart have more muscle tissue in their walls that can constrict to affect flow rates of blood. The major arteries diverge into minor arteries, and then smaller vessels called arterioles, to reach more deeply into the muscles and organs of the body.
Arterioles diverge into capillary beds. Capillary beds contain a large number, 10’s to 100’s of capillaries that branch among the cells of the body. Capillaries are narrow-diameter tubes that can fit single red blood cells and are the sites for the exchange of nutrients, waste, and oxygen with tissues at the cellular level. Fluid also leaks from the blood into the interstitial space from the capillaries. The capillaries converge again into venules that connect to minor veins that finally connect to major veins. Veins are blood vessels that bring blood high in carbon dioxide back to the heart. Veins are not as thick-walled as arteries, since pressure is lower, and they have valves along their length that prevent backflow of blood away from the heart. The major veins drain blood from the same organs and limbs that the major arteries supply.