BLOOD TESTS

Usually, your physician will request blood tests because almost all illnesses cause some abnormality in the constituents of the blood. Blood tests are often the easiest way to determine that you have a disorder. They are easy to do, pose very little danger, and if done carefully, usually cause little discomfort. They can be repeated readily to obtain diagnostic information and measure the results of treatment.

Blood consists of a fluid called plasma, which carries red and white blood cells. Red cells, or erythrocytes, carry oxygen and carbon dioxide. They contain a special chemical substance called hemoglobin, which allows oxygen and carbon dioxide to enter or leave the cell. In many diseases the ability of the body to keep up the normal level of red cells and hemoglobin is disturbed. This disturbance is determined by a blood count, which tells the physician whether the red cells and hemoglobin are normal. If they are too low, the condition is called anemia.

There are a number of varieties of white blood cells, or leucocytes, which help the body fight infection. In certain illnesses there may be either too many or too few white blood cells, or the ones produced may be abnormal. If you have too many white blood cells, you may have an infection, which stimulates the body to fight the germs. On the other hand, a disorder of the white blood cells may make you more susceptible to infection.

Platelets are small cell-like particles that induce blood clotting when an artery or vein is injured. There may be too many or too few platelets in certain disorders. This can make the blood too sticky, which causes blood clots to form within blood vessels, or it can keep the blood from clotting normally and increase your tendency to bleed.

All the blood cells and platelets are produced in the bone marrow, found within the bones of the body. Bone marrow manufactures blood cells and allows them to enter the bloodstream according to the needs of the body. Sometimes the bone marrow becomes diseased and produces excess amounts of blood cells or too few of its components. This results in various blood diseases.

The blood cells are carried in the plasma, which also contains many other components that are vital for the normal, healthy function of the body. Hormones, produced by glands, are also transported by the plasma, as are salts, which keep the body environment normal. All nutrients from food pass into the plasma from the gastrointestinal tract and are circulated throughout the body. Antibodies, which are produced to fight disease, all medications, and the by-products of metabolism are contained in the plasma.

As medicine progresses, we learn more and more about changes that occur within the components of the blood. Therefore, the number and complexity of blood tests has grown enormously in the past few years. The elements in the blood that can be affected by medications, either by design or unintentionally as side effects, can also be determined.

Ask your physician what tests are being done. He may tell you their chemical name or that he is examining your “kidneys” or “liver.” Sometimes blood tests are repeated, and you may wonder why. Many older people complain that their blood is being taken too often, but it is often advisable to repeat blood tests in order to make a diagnosis and to monitor the outcome of treatment. If tests are reordered, ask your physician why. In many instances it is more important for the physician to know about the changes that occur in the blood than to see the results of a single measurement.

The following is a summary of the most common blood tests, but new tests are always being developed. Tests are done by commercial and hospital laboratories, but ones that require special equipment or expertise may be sent elsewhere. Before you leave your physician’s office, ask how you will find out about the results of the tests. Ask whether he will want to see you again to discuss the tests or whether he can tell you the results over the telephone. A physician may tell you that if the tests are normal, you will not hear from him and know that “no news is good news.” If you have gone to a specialist for the tests, he may tell your physician the results. Make sure that you know what tests will be done and who has the answers so that unnecessary duplication is avoided.

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