Understanding Guyton's venous return curves

Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2011 Sep;301(3):H629-33. doi: 10.1152/ajpheart.00228.2011. Epub 2011 Jun 10.


Based on observations that as cardiac output (as determined by an artificial pump) was experimentally increased the right atrial pressure decreased, Arthur Guyton and coworkers proposed an interpretation that right atrial pressure represents a back pressure restricting venous return (equal to cardiac output in steady state). The idea that right atrial pressure is a back pressure limiting cardiac output and the associated idea that "venous recoil" does work to produce flow have confused physiologists and clinicians for decades because Guyton's interpretation interchanges independent and dependent variables. Here Guyton's model and data are reanalyzed to clarify the role of arterial and right atrial pressures and cardiac output and to clearly delineate that cardiac output is the independent (causal) variable in the experiments. Guyton's original mathematical model is used with his data to show that a simultaneous increase in arterial pressure and decrease in right atrial pressure with increasing cardiac output is due to a blood volume shift into the systemic arterial circulation from the systemic venous circulation. This is because Guyton's model assumes a constant blood volume in the systemic circulation. The increase in right atrial pressure observed when cardiac output decreases in a closed circulation with constant resistance and capacitance is due to the redistribution of blood volume and not because right atrial pressure limits venous return. Because Guyton's venous return curves have generated much confusion and little clarity, we suggest that the concept and previous interpretations of venous return be removed from educational materials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atrial Function, Right
  • Blood Circulation*
  • Blood Pressure
  • Blood Volume
  • Cardiac Output
  • Hemodynamics*
  • Humans
  • Models, Cardiovascular*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Vascular Capacitance
  • Vascular Resistance
  • Veins / physiology*