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Polycythemia Vera

Overview :

Polycythemia vera is a relatively common progressive disorder that develops over a course of 10-20 years. In the United States, PV affects about one person in every 200,000. PV has several other names, including splenomegalic polycythemia, Vaquez-Osler syndrome, erythremia, and primary polycythemia. Primary polycythemia means that the disorder is not caused or triggered by other illnesses. PV most commonly affects middle-aged adults. It is rarely seen in children or young adults and does not appear to run in families. The male/female ratio is 2:1.

Risk factors for polycythemia vera include:

  • Caucasian race
  • male sex
  • age between 40 and 60

Causes and symptoms

The cause of PV remains uncertain. In general, the increased mass of red blood cells in the patient's blood causes both hemorrhage and abnormal formation of blood clots in the circulatory system (thrombosis). The reasons for these changes in clotting patterns are not yet fully understood.

Early symptoms

The symptoms of early PV may be minimal'it is not unusual for the disorder to be discovered during a routine blood test. More often, however, patients have symptoms that include headaches, ringing in the ears, tiring easily, memory problems, difficulty breathing, giddiness or lightheadedness, hypertension, visual problems, or tingling or burning sensations in their hands or feet. Another common symptom is itching (pruritus). Pruritus related to PV is often worse after the patient takes a warm bath or shower.

Some patients' early symptoms include unusually heavy bleeding from minor cuts, nosebleeds, stomach ulcers, or bone pain. In a few cases, the first symptom is the development of blood clots in an unusual part of the circulatory system (e.g., the liver).

Later symptoms and complications

As the disease progresses, patients with PV may have episodes of hemorrhage or thrombosis. Thrombosis is the most frequent cause of death from PV. Other complications include a high level of uric acid in the blood and an increased risk of peptic ulcer disease. About 10% of PV patients eventually develop gout; another 10% develop peptic ulcers.

Spent phase

The spent phase is a development in late PV that affects about 30% of patients. The bone marrow eventually fails and the patient becomes severely anemic, requiring repeated blood transfusions. The spleen and liver become greatly enlarged'in the later stages of PV, the patient's spleen may fill the entire left side of the abdomen.

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