Coagulation of the blood is the process whereby bleeding (or haemorrhage) is normally arrested in the body. Blood starts to clot as soon as the skin (or other tissue) has been cut. Coagulation is part of the process of HAEMOSTASIS which is the arrest of bleeding from an injured or diseased blood vessel. Haemostasis depends on the combined activities of vascular, platelet (see PLATELETS) and PLASMA elements which are oﬀset by processes to restrict the accumulation of platelets and FIBRIN to the damaged area.
The three-stage process of coagulation is complex, involving many diﬀerent substances. There are two cascading pathways of biochemical reactions for activating coagulation of blood. The extrinsic pathway is the main physiological mechanism, which is triggered when blood vessels are damaged, usually by trauma or surgery. The intrinsic pathway is activated by internal disruption of the wall of a blood vessel. The basic pattern is broadly the same for both and is summarised simply as follows:
prothrombin + calcium + thromboplastin
thrombin + ﬁbrinogen
Prothrombin and calcium are normally present in the blood. Thromboplastin is an enzyme which is normally found in the blood platelets and in tissue cells. When bleeding occurs from a blood vessel, there is always some damage to tissue cells and to the blood platelets. As a result of this damage, thromboplastin is released and comes into contact with the prothrombin and calcium in the blood. In the presence of thromboplastin and calcium, prothrombin is converted into thrombin, which in turn interacts with ﬁbrinogen – a protein always present in the blood – to form ﬁbrin. Fibrin consists of needle-shaped crystals which, with the assistance of the blood platelets, form a ﬁne network in which the blood corpuscles become enmeshed. This meshwork, or CLOT as it is known, gradually retracts until it forms a tight mass which, unless the tissue injury is very severe or a major artery has been damaged, prevents any further bleeding. It will thus be seen that clotting, or coagulation, does not occur in the healthy blood vessel because there is no thromboplastin present. There is now evidence suggesting that there is an anti-thrombin substance present in the blood in small amounts, and that this substance antagonises any small amounts of thrombin that may be formed as a result of small amounts of thromboplastin being released.
The clotting or coagulation time is the time taken for blood to clot and can be measured under controlled conditions to ensure that it is normal (3–8 minutes). In certain diseases – HAEMOPHILIA, for example – clotting time is greatly extended and the danger of serious haemorrhage enhanced.