Phlebotomy is the act of drawing or removing blood from the circulatory system through a cut (incision) or puncture in order to obtain a sample for analysis and diagnosis. Phlebotomy is also done as part of the patient's treatment for certain blood disorders.
Phlebotomy that is part of treatment (therapeutic phlebotomy) is performed to treat polycythemia vera, a condition that causes an elevated red blood cell volume ( hematocrit ). Phlebotomy is also prescribed for patients with disorders that increase the amount of iron in their blood to dangerous levels, such as hemochromatosis, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Patients with pulmonary edema may undergo phlebotomy procedures to decrease their total blood volume.
Phlebotomy is also used to remove blood from the body during blood donation and for analysis of the substances contained within it.
Phlebotomy is performed by a nurse or a technician known as a phlebotomist. Blood is usually taken from a vein on the back of the hand or just below the elbow. Some blood tests, however, may require blood from an artery. The skin over the area is wiped with an antiseptic, and an elastic band is tied around the arm. The band acts as a tourniquet, retaining blood within the arm and making the veins more visible. The phlebotomy technician feels the veins in order to select an appropriate one. When a vein is selected, the technician inserts a needle into the vein and releases the elastic band. The appropriate amount of blood is drawn and the needle is withdrawn from the vein. The patient's pulse and blood pressure may be monitored during the procedure.
For some tests requiring very small amounts of blood for analysis, the technician uses a finger stick. A lance, or small needle, makes a small cut in the surface of the fingertip, and a small amount of blood is collected in a narrow glass tube. The fingertip may be squeezed to get additional blood to surface.
The amount of blood drawn depends on the purpose of the phlebotomy. Blood donors usually contribute a unit of blood (500 mL) in a session. The volume of blood needed for laboratory analysis varies widely with the type of test being conducted. Typically one or several small (5–10 mL) tubes are drawn. Therapeutic phlebotomy removes a larger amount of blood than donation and blood analysis require. Phlebotomy for treatment of hemochromatosis typically involves removing a unit of blood—250 mg of iron—once a week. Phlebotomy sessions are required until iron levels return to a consistently normal level, which may take several months to several years. Phlebotomy for polycythemia vera removes enough blood to keep the patient's hematocrit (proportion of red blood cells) below 45%. The frequency and duration of sessions depends on the patient's individual needs.
Patients having their blood drawn for analysis may be asked to discontinue medications or to avoid food (to fast) for a period of time before the blood test. Patients donating blood will be asked for a brief medical history, have their blood pressure taken, and have their hematocrit checked with a finger stick test prior to donation.
After blood is drawn and the needle is removed, pressure is placed on the puncture site with a cotton ball to stop bleeding, and a bandage is applied. It is not uncommon for a patient to feel dizzy or nauseated during or after phlebotomy. The patient may be encouraged to rest for a short period once the procedure is completed. Patients are also instructed to drink plenty of fluids and eat regularly over the next 24 hours to replace lost blood volume. Patients who experience swelling of the puncture site or continued bleeding after phlebotomy should seek immediate medical treatment.
Most patients will have a small bruise or mild soreness at the puncture site for several days. Therapeutic phlebotomy may cause thrombocytosis and chronic iron deficiency (anemia) in some patients. As with any invasive procedure, infection is also a risk. This risk is minimized by the use of prepackaged sterilized equipment and careful attention to proper technique. There is no risk of HIV infection from phlebotomy, since all needles are disposed of after a single use. Arterial blood collection carries a higher risk than venous collection, and is performed by a physician or other specially trained professional. Patients who are anemic or have a history of cardiovascular disease may not be good candidates for phlebotomy.
Normal results include obtaining the needed amount of blood with the minimum of discomfort to the patient.
Properly performed, phlebotomy does not carry the risk of mortality. It may cause temporary pain and bleeding, but these are usually easily managed.
Phlebotomy is a necessary medical procedure, and is required for a wide variety of other procedures.
Messinezy, Maria and T. C. Pearson. "Polycythaemia, Primary (Essential) Thrombocythaemia and Myelofibrosis (ABC of Clinical Haematology)." British Medical Journal 314 (22 February 1997): 587–90.
Wolfe, Yun Lee. "Case of the Ceaseless Fatigue." Prevention Magazine (July 1997): 88–94.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin Richard Robinson
Phlebotomy is usually performed by a phlebotomy technician. Arterial collection may be performed by a physician. Collection occurs in the hospital or outpatient clinic.