Platelets are small cell fragments found circulating in the blood stream. The primary purpose of these fragments is to seal a break in the blood vessel where cuts, scrapes and tears occur by clumping together.
Platelets have a sticky surface and are capable of changing shape to improve clumping capability. Clumping is a normal process that defends against excessive bleeding. However, factors that cause abnormal platelet clumping could damage organs and cause other health related problems.
What are Platelets
Platelets, like other blood cells, are produced in the bone marrow. They are the product of large cells called megakaryocytes, under control of a hormone produced in the liver called thrombopoietin, or TPO. In response to TPO in the bloodstream, megakaryocytes break into small fragments, forming thousands of small platelets. Once the fragments are released into the bloodstream, they are bound to TPO and reduce TPO levels and platelet production. Platelets are not actual cells, only small fragments. The surface is sticky and causes the fragments to aggregate, or clump, when contacting a damaged blood vessel or other rough surface.
Normal Clumping of Platelets
Blood vessels have a smooth surface and allow blood to flow freely. However, when a break occurs in the vessel, the exposed area includes rough fibrous tissue. Platelets begin to clump along the edges of the break. Platelets also change shape and send out extensions that attract additional platelet fragments that aggregate along the broken surface. Eventually, the fragments will form a plug to seal the break in the vessel. Red blood cells assist platelet clumping by pushing the lighter fragments toward the edge of the break.
Abnormal Clumping of Platelets
Health related conditions can cause abnormal platelet clumping. Cholesterol in the blood can eventually collect along the smooth surface of vessel walls. This provides a surface on which platelets can clump together. Tissue damage results when blood supply is stopped by a plugged blood vessel. Excessive platelet production is another cause of abnormal clumping. Smoking, caffeine and consumption of foods high in triglycerides can also increase platelet production beyond normal levels.
Treatments that Prevent Platelet Clumping
Aspirin is a popular treatment in the prevention of heart attacks. This over-the-counter drug blocks one step required for platelets to stick together in clump formation. However, aspirin does not completely inhibit platelet clumping and can cause abnormal bleeding. There are natural alternatives to aspirin in prevention of abnormal platelet clumping. Grapes and grape seed extract, vitamin E and fish oils have been shown to reduce platelet clumping for those with health risks.