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Polycythemia vera

Definition

Polycythemia vera is an abnormal increase in the number of blood cells (primarily red blood cells) produced by the bone marrow.

Alternative Names

Primary polycythemia; Polycythemia rubra vera; Myeloproliferative disorder; Erythremia; Splenomegalic polycythemia; Vaquez's disease; Osler's disease; Polycythemia with chronic cyanosis - Myelopathic polycythemia; Erythrocytosis megalosplenica; Cryptogenic polycythemia

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Polycythemia vera is a disorder of the bone marrow. It causes too much production of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

It is a rare disease that occurs more often in men than women, and is rare in patients under age 40. The exact cause is unknown.

Symptoms

Note: Symptoms are due to increased blood thickness and clotting.

Other symptoms that may occur with this disease:

Signs and tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. Tests that may be done include:

This disease may also affect the results of the following tests:

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to reduce the thickness of the blood and prevent bleeding and clotting.

A method called phlebotomy is used to decrease blood thickness. One pint of blood is removed weekly until the hematocrit level is less than 45, then therapy is continued as needed.

Occasionally, chemotherapy (specifically hydroxyurea) may be given to suppress the bone marrow. Interferon may also be given in an attempt to lower blood counts. A medicine called anegrelide may be given to lower platelet counts.

The use of blood thinners (such as aspirin) is controversial because it may cause stomach bleeding. However, it does prevent blood clots.

Expectations (prognosis)

The disease usually develops slowly. Most patients do not experience any problems related to the disease after being diagnosed.

The following complications occur in a small number of patients:

  • The abnormal bone marrow cells may begin to grow uncontrollably in some patients, leading to the development of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
  • The bone marrow may develop a scarring condition called myelofibrosis.This condition may lead to dangerously low levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

Patients with polycythemia vera are also more likely to form blood clots that can cause strokes or heart attacks. Some patients may experience abnormal bleeding because their platelets are abnormal.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if symptoms of polycythemia vera develop.

References

Tefferi A. Polycythemias. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 172.


Review Date: 3/2/2009
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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