New Signs of Turbulence in Blood Flow

Rendering of the helical instability.

Our bodies are filled with a network of blood vessels responsible for keeping our cells oxygenated and carrying away waste products. In many ways, our blood vessels are tiny pipes, but there’s a crucial difference in the flow they carry: it’s pulsatile. Because the flow is driven by our hearts, rather than a continuous pump, every heartbeat creates a distinct cycle of acceleration and deceleration in the flow. And new research has found that this cycle, when combined with curvature or flow restrictions like plaque build-up, can create turbulence in unexpected places.

Specifically, the researchers found that decelerating pipe flows can develop a helical instability that breaks down into turbulence, even in vessels where purely laminar flow would be expected. In the animations above, you can see the flow slow, develop swirls and then break into turbulence. The flow becomes laminar again as it accelerates, but during that brief bout of turbulence there’s much higher forces on the walls of a blood vessel. Over time, that extra force could contribute to inflammation or even hardening of the arteries. (Image and research credit: D. Xu et al.; via

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