What Is Pancytopenia? - Definition, Causes & Treatment

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Lou Perin
This lesson covers the definition of pancytopenia and compares it to aplastic anemia, a condition that presents itself in a similar way. It discusses its known causes, the signs and symptoms, and treatment.

What is Pancytopenia?

While the medical field generally relies on Latin for its terminology, in the case of pancytopenia, the origin is Greek: pan (all), kyto (cell), and penia (poverty). Pancytopenia, therefore, is a decrease in the three blood cell types found in the peripheral blood stream: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The condition is usually found by performing a complete blood count (CBC), which will indicate blood counts below the normal range. The normal red blood cell count for men is 4.7 - 6.1 million (per cubic millimeter of blood) and for women is 4.2-5.4 million (per cubic milliliter of blood). In the case of white blood cells, the norm is 4,500 - 10,000 per cubic milliliter of blood for both genders and for platelets, the normal range is 150,000-450,000 per cubic milliliter of blood.

These three cell types develop from one basic cell, a stem cell or immature starter cell manufactured in the bone marrow. When there is a decrease in red cells, it causes anemia. Similarly, a resulting decrease in white cells causes leukopenia, while a decrease in platelets causes thrombocytopenia.

Because pancytopenia is simply a medical finding, not a disease, it must be investigated further to determine the cause. This is done by taking a sample of bone marrow, called a bone marrow aspiration. It may show either a bone marrow that is making blood cells but they are decreased in the peripheral blood stream (pancytopenia), in which case, the physician becomes a detective to find the whereabouts of the cells. However, the bone marrow biopsy may show a marrow, which is essentially empty of red and white cells and platelets. This indicates a defined disease known as aplastic anemia, a much more serious condition. This process of determining what is the basic problem is called a differential diagnosis.

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  • 0:01 What is Pancytopenia?
  • 2:14 Causes & Risk Factors
  • 3:23 Symptoms
  • 4:30 Treatment Options
  • 6:04 Potential Complications
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Causes and Risk Factors

In about half the cases of pancytopenia, the origin is unknown or idiopathic. However, in some cases the cells are being produced but are sitting in the spleen and not circulating. When they congregate there it causes splenomegaly or 'enlarged spleen'. The physician then must pursue why that is happening. Other internal causes can be an inherited disorder or a dysfunction of the immune system. In an immune system disorder, the body identifies normal body elements as foreign and begins to destroy them. Or the problem can be external; for example, antibiotics and drugs that suppress the immune system or exposure to environmental contaminants such as asbestos and benzene which impact cell development. Finally, chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer can be culprits in cell depression.

Some of the risk factors for developing pancytopenia are a family history of blood disorders, lupus or certain other autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, pregnancy and exposure to environmental toxins.


Understanding the role of each type of blood cell helps us understand what the symptoms of their deficiency would be. Because red blood cells carry oxygen to cells, a reduction in the number of red blood cells causes shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat, or tachycardia. As the heart races to increase the volume of blood circulating to make up for the decrease in the amount of oxygen-carrying cells, the result is paleness or pallor to the skin as well as fatigue and weakness, which can compromise a person's ability to perform daily activities.

Because white blood cells help the body fight infection, the absence of these cells makes the body prone to develop infections, which can be severe and life threatening.

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