Question 19

Discuss the determinants of venous return to the heart.

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College Answer

The factors that influence VR are captured in 2 formulae; VR = CO, and VR = (MSFP-RAP) / Venous Resistance. Candidates that used these as the backbone structure of their answer scored well. Quite a few candidates failed to consider factors that affect left heart CO also effect VR. Recognising that CO does = VR appeared to elude some candidates.


  • Venous return is the rate of blood flow into the heart from the veins.
  • At a steady state, venous return and cardiac output are equal.
  • Venous return can be expressed as VR = (MSFP - RAP) / VR = HR × SV
    where MSFP is mean systemic filling pressure, RAP is right atrial pressure and VR is the venous resistance 
  • Factors which influence venous return are therefore:
    • Right atrial pressure (RAP):
      • The mean pressure in the right atrium, which corresponds to the  mean central venous pressure (CVP) 
      • As RAP increases, venous return decreases
      • Factors which affect right atrial pressure
        • Intrathoracic pressure (spontaneous vs. positive pressure ventilation)
        • Pericardial compliance (eg. tamponade, open chest)
        • Right atrial compliance (eg. infarct, dilatation)
        • Right atrial contractility (i.e. AF vs sinus rhythm)
        • Tricuspid valvular competence and resistance
    • Mean systemic filling pressure, MSFP:
      • The pressure exterted by the tone of the vascular smooth muscle on the systemic blood volume, in the absence of pulsatile flow
      • As MSFP increases, the venous return increases
      • Factors which affect mean systemic filling pressure
        • Total venous blood volume
        • Venous smooth muscle tone (which affects the size of the  "stressed volume"
    • Venous resistance, VR:
      • The resistance to flow in the venous circulation
      • As VR increases, venous return decreases
      • Factors which affect venous resistance
        • Mechanical factors
          • Posture
          • Intraabdominal pressure
          • Skeletal muscle pump
          • Obstruction to venous flow (eg. pregnancy,  SVC obstruction)
          • Hyperviscosity (polycythemia, hyperproteinaemia)
        • Neuroendocrine factors
          • Autonomic tone
          • Vasoactive drugs (eg. noradrenaline, GTN)
    • Cardiac output, CO:
      • The amount of blood pumped by the heart in L per minute
      • Cardiac output and venous return are essentially the same thing; as cardiac output decreases, the venous return decreases.
      • Factors which affect cardiac output
        • Preload
        • Afterload
        • Contractility

For a diagram, the exam candidate would probably have to reproduce something like this:

venous function curve illustrating the major influences on venous return


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