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Red Blood Cell Indices

Overview :


Anemia has several general causes: blood loss; a drop in production of red blood cells; or a rise in the number of red blood cells destroyed. Blood loss can result from severe hemorrhage or a chronic slow bleed, such as the result of an accident or an ulcer. Lack of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid in the diet, as well as certain chronic diseases, lower the number of red blood cells produced by the bone marrow. Inherited disorders affecting hemoglobin, severe reactions to blood transfusions, prescription medications, or poisons can cause red blood cells to burst (hemolyze) well before the end of their usual 120-day lifespan.

Anemia of any type affects the results of one or more of the common blood tests. These tests are the hematocrit, hemoglobin, and red blood cell count. The hematocrit is a measure of red blood cell mass, or how much space in the blood is occupied by red blood cells. The hemoglobin test is a measure of how much hemoglobin protein is in the blood. The red blood cell count (RBC) measures the number of red blood cells present in the blood. Red blood cell indices are additional measurements of red blood cells based on the relationship of these three test results.

The relationships between the hematocrit, the hemoglobin level, and the RBC are converted to red blood cell indices through mathematical formulas. These formulas were worked out and first applied to the classification of anemias by Maxwell Wintrobe in 1934.

The indices include these measurements: mean corpuscular volume (MCV); mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH); mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC); and red cell distribution width (RDW). They are usually calculated by an automated instrument as part of a complete blood count (CBC). Indices are covered by insurance when medically necessary. Results are available the same day that the blood is drawn or the following day.

Mean corpuscular volume (MCV)

MCV is the index most often used. It measures the average volume of a red blood cell by dividing the hematocrit by the RBC. The MCV categorizes red blood cells by size. Cells of normal size are called normocytic, smaller cells are microcytic, and larger cells are macrocytic. These size categories are used to classify anemias. Normocytic anemias have normal-sized cells and a normal MCV; microcytic anemias have small cells and a decreased MCV; and macrocytic anemias have large cells and an increased MCV. Under a microscope, stained red blood cells with a high MCV appear larger than cells with a normal or low MCV.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC)

The MCHC measures the average concentration of hemoglobin in a red blood cell. This index is calculated by dividing the hemoglobin by the hematocrit. The MCHC categorizes red blood cells according to their concentration of hemoglobin. Cells with a normal concentration of hemoglobin are called normochromic; cells with a lower than normal concentration are called hypochromic. Because there is a physical limit to the amount of hemoglobin that can fit in a cell, there is no hyperchromic category.

Just as MCV relates to the size of the cells, MCHC relates to the color of the cells. Hemoglobin contains iron, which gives blood its characteristic red color. When examined under a microscope, normal red blood cells that contain a normal amount of hemoglobin stain pinkish red with a paler area in the center. These normochromic cells have a normal MCHC. Cells with too little hemoglobin are lighter in color with a larger pale area in the center. These hypochromic cells have a low MCHC. Anemias are categorized as hypochromic or normochromic according to the MCHC index.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH)

The average weight of hemoglobin in a red blood cell is measured by the MCH. The formula for this index is the sum of the hemoglobin multiplied by 10 and divided by the RBC. MCH values usually rise or fall as the MCV is increased or decreased.

Red cell distribution width (RDW)

The RDW measures the variation in size of the red blood cells. Usually red blood cells are a standard size. Certain disorders, however, cause a significant variation in cell size.

Obtaining the blood sample

The RBC indices test requires 0.17-24 oz (5-7 ml) of blood. A healthcare worker ties a tourniquet on the person's upper arm, locates a vein in the inner elbow region, and inserts a needle into that vein. Vacuum action draws the blood through the needle into an attached tube. Collection of the sample takes only a few minutes.

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