Microcytic Anemia: Definition and Causes

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Microcytic anemia occurs when the body's red blood cells are abnormally small. Learn about the diagnostic process and common causes of microcytic anemia, such as iron deficiency and thalassemia. Updated: 09/29/2021

Putting the Puzzle Together

Let's see if you can guess what all of the following have in common by putting the pieces of this puzzle together: liver, peas, kettlebells and red. If you're stumped, that's okay. You're about to discover the solution as we explore the main causes of microcytic anemia.

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  • 0:06 Puzzle
  • 0:28 Microcytic Anemia
  • 2:08 Causes
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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What Is Microcytic Anemia?

The term 'microcytic' refers to the fact that the red blood cells in microcytic anemia are small. It's easy to remember; a 'micro'chip, 'micro'n and 'micro'computer all use something small to achieve their aims. 'Cytic' refers to a cell; so we have microcytic, or small red blood cell anemia.

Anemia is a decrease in red blood cell number or function. When I say function, I'm saying there's either a decrease in the amount of hemoglobin or a lack of proper formation of it. Hemoglobin, a protein located within red blood cells, is the part of blood that gives blood its red color. It contains four oxygen binding sites and is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the tissues around the body.

Hemoglobin is able to do this thanks to a chemical element known as iron - you know, that stuff found in peas, the liver and spinach. Each hemoglobin molecule contains four iron atoms. Iron is also used to make kettlebells and other weights for fitness training. So, when you think of iron, remember that people pump iron in the gym, and iron is pumped around the body in your blood.

Another good way to remember this is to imagine that a red blood cell is like a train car zipping along tracks made of blood vessels. Each train car has cabins: our hemoglobin molecule. Each cabin has four seats: our iron atoms. In each seat can sit one oxygen molecule to be transported from their point of departure (the lungs) to any stop along the train tracks that may need them.

What Causes Microcytic Anemia?

Anemia is classified as microcytic thanks to a measurement on a blood test called mean cell volume, or MCV. If the MCV is measured to be low, we term this microcytic. The most common form of microcytic anemia is known as iron deficiency anemia. I think you know why it occurs based on the term itself. Iron deficiency anemia is a microcytic, hypochromic anemia that results from low iron stores in the body, which in turn cause improper red blood cell production.

Now, I just threw in a term that I haven't introduced in this lesson yet. It's hypochromic. The prefix 'hypo-' refers to the fact that there is an abnormally low level, or too little, of something. The suffix '-chromic' references color. I like to remember this by the fact that 'chromatic' means 'very colorful.' So something that is hypochromic is paler than normal, and that's what our red blood cells turn out to be in microcytic, hypochromic anemia as a result of iron deficiency. They're small and pale. The blood test value that indicates hypochromia is known as mean cell hemoglobin concentration, or MCHC. If it's too low - meaning the concentration of hemoglobin is too low to impart a nice red color - then it's termed a hypochromic anemia.

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