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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts

Richard E. Klabunde, PhD


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Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts textbook cover

Click here for information on Cardiovascular Physiology Concepts, 2nd edition, a textbook published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2012)

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Click here for information on Normal and Abnormal Blood Pressure, a textbook published by Richard E. Klabunde (2013)


Hypotension - Introduction


Definition of Hypotension and its Causes

Hypotension is a physiologic state in which the arterial blood pressure is abnormally low. For an adult, hypotension exists when the systolic pressure is less than 90 mmHg and the diastolic pressure is less than 60 mmHg. Because arterial pressure is determined by cardiac output, venous pressure and systemic vascular resistance (Click here for more details), a reduction in any of these variables can lead to hypotension. Hypotension may result from:

  1. Reduced cardiac output
  2. Hypovolemia (low blood volume)
  3. Blood volume redistribution
  4. Reduced systemic vascular resistance (systemic vasodilation)
  5. Vascular obstruction (e.g., pulmonary embolism)


The following diagram shows diseases or conditions that may result in reduced cardiac output, or those related to abnormal vascular function.

Hypotension causes

Hypotension of Cardiac Origin

Reduction of cardiac output that cannot be compensated by neurohumoral reflexes will lead to hypotension.

Cardiac arrhythmias

Bradycardia caused by an abnormally slow sinus rate or resulting from an atrioventricular block that reduces ventricular rate leads to a decrease in cardiac output. Very high heart rates (tachycardia), by reducing ventricular filling time, can cause a large reduction in stroke volume and therefore cardiac output. Ventricular fibrillation causes cardiac output to fall to zero, and therefore leads to profound hypotension.

Cardiac structural disease

Cardiomyopathies (diseases of the myocardium) can impair either systolic function (inotropic state) or diastolic function (ventricular filling) and thereby reduce cardiac output and arterial pressure. Valve disease, pericardial disease, and congenital defects, can impair ventricular filling or net forward flow, thereby reducing cardiac output. Ischemic heart disease caused by atherosclerosis or thromboembolism impairs ventricular function. Primary pulmonary hypertension can lead to right ventricular failure and impaired left ventricular filling and output.


Hypovolemia caused by blood loss (hemorrhage) or orthostatic volume shifts, for example, reduces cardiac output by decreasing central venous pressure and ventricular filling (preload). This impairs the pumping ability of the heart through the Frank-Starling mechanism. Excessive water loss (dehydration) caused by profuse sweating, restricted water intake, or use of diuretic drugs can also lead to a hypovolemic state and hypotension.

Hypotension of Vascular Origin

Hypotension may also be of vascular origin, and is generally caused by excessive systemic vasodilation (decreased systemic vascular resistance), which may result from sepsis (blood infections), anaphylaxis (immunological reactions), autonomic dysfunction (e.g., diabetic neuropathy), neurogenic shock (e.g., spinal cord injury) or drugs (e.g., antihypertensive vasodilators). Another vascular origin of hypotension is vascular obstruction such as pulmonary embolism that diminishes venous return to the left ventricle, thereby decreasing its output.

To understand more fully the physiology and pathophysiology of hypotension, see the Blood Pressure Regulation Tutorial.

Revised 12/8/16

DISCLAIMER: These materials are for educational purposes only, and are not a source of medical decision-making advice.