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The smooth muscle layers of the tunica media are supported by a framework of collagenous fibers that also binds the tunica media to the inner and outer tunics. Along with the collagenous fibers are large numbers of elastic fibers that appear as wavy lines in prepared slides. Separating the tunica media from the outer tunica externa in larger arteries is the external elastic membrane    (also called the external elastic lamina), which also appears wavy in slides. This structure is not usually seen in smaller arteries, nor is it seen in veins.

Tunica externa

The outer tunic, the tunica externa    (also called the tunica adventitia), is a substantial sheath of connective tissue composed primarily of collagenous fibers. Some bands of elastic fibers are found here as well. The tunica externa in veins also contains groups of smooth muscle fibers. This is normally the thickest tunic in veins and may be thicker than the tunica media in some larger arteries. The outer layers of the tunica externa are not distinct but rather blend with the surrounding connective tissue outside the vessel, helping to hold the vessel in relative position. If you are able to palpate some of the superficial veins on your upper limbs and try to move them, you will find that the tunica externa prevents this. If the tunica externa did not hold the vessel in place, any movement would likely result in disruption of blood flow.

Arteries

An artery    is a blood vessel that conducts blood away from the heart. All arteries have relatively thick walls that can withstand the high pressure of blood ejected from the heart. However, those close to the heart have the thickest walls, containing a high percentage of elastic fibers in all three of their tunics. This type of artery is known as an elastic artery    ( [link] ). Vessels larger than 10 mm in diameter are typically elastic. Their abundant elastic fibers allow them to expand, as blood pumped from the ventricles passes through them, and then to recoil after the surge has passed. If artery walls were rigid and unable to expand and recoil, their resistance to blood flow would greatly increase and blood pressure would rise to even higher levels, which would in turn require the heart to pump harder to increase the volume of blood expelled by each pump (the stroke volume) and maintain adequate pressure and flow. Artery walls would have to become even thicker in response to this increased pressure. The elastic recoil of the vascular wall helps to maintain the pressure gradient that drives the blood through the arterial system. An elastic artery is also known as a conducting artery, because the large diameter of the lumen enables it to accept a large volume of blood from the heart and conduct it to smaller branches.

Types of arteries and arterioles

The left panel shows the cross-section of an elastic artery, the middle panel shows the cross section of a muscular artery, and the right panel shows the cross-section of an arteriole.
Comparison of the walls of an elastic artery, a muscular artery, and an arteriole is shown. In terms of scale, the diameter of an arteriole is measured in micrometers compared to millimeters for elastic and muscular arteries.

Farther from the heart, where the surge of blood has dampened, the percentage of elastic fibers in an artery’s tunica intima decreases and the amount of smooth muscle in its tunica media increases. The artery at this point is described as a muscular artery    . The diameter of muscular arteries typically ranges from 0.1 mm to 10 mm. Their thick tunica media allows muscular arteries to play a leading role in vasoconstriction. In contrast, their decreased quantity of elastic fibers limits their ability to expand. Fortunately, because the blood pressure has eased by the time it reaches these more distant vessels, elasticity has become less important.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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