We’ve talked about a whole bunch of different hemolytic anemias over the past few weeks. We’ve gone through the main hereditary hemolytic anemias: hereditary spherocytosis (and its less-common counterpart, hereditary elliptocytosis), glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, the hemoglobinopathies (like sickle cell anemia) and the thalassemias. We’ve also talked about immune-related hemolytic anemia (warm and cold), which is an acquired hemolytic anemia.

The last main type of hemolytic anemia on our list is microangiopathic hemolytic anemia, or MAHA for short, which falls under the acquired group of hemolytic anemias. In this type of hemolytic anemia, the red cells are ripped apart by physical trauma. Often the trauma results from red cells getting snagged as they try to pass through vessels laden with fibrin strands (there are a ton of situations in which this occurs, as we’ll see). Sometimes the trauma is due to other types of trauma (like an artificial heart valve that busts a few red cells each time it closes).

Let’s take a look at the other-types-of-trauma group first because it’s a little easier to conceptualize. There are two main causes of MAHA in this group: artificial heart valves and coarctation of the aorta. They really should call this group “macroangiopathic hemolytic anemia” because the problem is in big (macro) not tiny (micro) vessels, but they didn’t ask me. In both of these causes, red cells are getting ripped up in large spaces – either by the smashing of cells within an artificial heart valve (the old ball-and-socket valves were the worst for this; the newer models are much kinder to red cells), or by the ripping apart of red cells in turbulent blood flow (as you would get in coarctation of the aorta).

The remaining cases of MAHA are due to red cells getting snagged as they try to traverse thrombus-laden vessels. There are tons of situations in which the patient starts forming fibrin at an increased rate. If you look at Robbins, or any hematology textbook, you’ll be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of disorders and conditions that are associated with a microangiopathic hemolytic anemia, such as:

1. Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) – a nasty condition in which there is bleeding and clotting at the same time in the patient. Lots of things can cause DIC (like malignancy, obstetric complications, trauma, and sepsis) – and it’s complicated enough that we’ll get into it in a future post.
2. Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) – a syndrome in which the patient gets little thrombi within the microvasculature anywhere in the body, but especially the CNS and kidneys. We’ve talked a little about TTP before.
3. Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) – a disorder often related to ingestion of food (especially raw hamburger, but also spinach, other vegetables, you name it) containing E. coli 0157:H7. The bug makes a toxin that damages endothelial cells, and for some reason, the kidneys are hit the hardest.

The blood smear is where the action is in MAHA. If you look carefully at a blood smear from a patient with MAHA, you’ll see fragmented red cells, or schistocytes. Schistocytes are smaller than normal red cells, and they have points on them. There are all kinds of permutations on this theme – some schistocytes have just one point, some look like they have little horns, some just look like little ragged red cell shards. If you look at the image above, you’ll see a whole bunch of schistocytes of varying shapes.

The most specific type of schistocyte is the “triangulocyte” (that’s really the name; would I make that up?), which is, as the name suggests, a triangular fragment of a red cell. These aren’t as common as the other types of schistocytes (there isn’t a triangulocyte in the above image). If you see one of those puppies, you better figure out what’s going on with the patient.

And that’s the main point I want to make about this type of hemolytic anemia. Given all the causes of this anemia – many of which carry a high mortality – you can’t just say the patient has MAHA, and move on to the next blood smear. You have to figure out what’s causing the hemolysis (or, rather, the clinician needs to figure it out); don’t miss this one. It could be a matter of life and death.

Photo credit: Ed Uthman at (DIC_With_Microangiopathic_Hemolytic_Anemia_(301920983).jpg)