Polycythemia vera

Dis Mon. 1992 Mar;38(3):153-212. doi: 10.1016/0011-5029(92)90002-7.


Polycythemia vera (PV) is one of the myeloproliferative diseases, and, as such, is an example of clonal hematopoiesis. The progeny of a single, abnormal, hematopoietic stem cell gain a growth advantage over their normal counterparts resulting in overproduction of red cells generally accompanied by overproduction of granulocytes and platelets as well. There are a variety of nonspecific symptoms at onset related to the increased red cell mass and hematocrit accompanied by the more specific manifestations of pruritus, erythromelalgia, and hepatic, portal, and mesenteric vein thrombosis. Splenomegaly and hypertension are common. The laboratory hallmark is an increased red cell mass. There is also often an increase in white cell count, platelet count, and leukocyte alkaline phosphatase along with other findings reflecting the increased rate of turnover of hematopoietic cells. The bone marrow biopsy generally displays hypercellularity involving all three cell lines and absent iron stores. The diagnosis of PV depends on excluding spurious polycythemia in which there is a high hematocrit but a normal red cell mass and secondary polycythemia in which there is an increased red cell mass in response to tissue hypoxia or the inappropriate production of erythropoietin, generally by a tumor. In addition, one should try to establish the diagnosis in a positive fashion by a combination of studies of the blood and bone marrow. Phlebotomy and occasionally plateletpheresis should be used as acute therapy. Chronic therapy is guided by the knowledge that patients treated with phlebotomy alone have an increased rate of thrombotic complications particularly in older patients and those with previous thrombotic disease. Myelosuppressive therapy can reduce the incidence of these complications, but is commonly associated with an increased incidence of second malignancies, particularly acute leukemia. At present, hydroxyurea is the myelosuppressive agent of choice. Antiplatelet agents have a limited role except in the palliation of the syndrome of erythromelalgia. Median survival is approximately 10 years. As implied above, the causes of morbidity and mortality vary with the mode of chronic therapy which has been employed, leukemia being more common after myelosuppressive therapy and thrombotic complications being more common after therapy with phlebotomy alone. Ten percent to 50% of patients move into a spent phase followed by postpolycythemic myeloid metaplasia, irrespective of previous therapy employed. Eventually, the major problems may be cytopenias and massive splenomegaly.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Polycythemia Vera* / complications
  • Polycythemia Vera* / drug therapy
  • Polycythemia Vera* / etiology
  • Polycythemia Vera* / pathology