vein, blood vessel that returns blood to the heart. Except for the pulmonary vein, which carries oxygenated blood from the lungs to the heart, veins carry deoxygenated blood. The oxygen-depleted blood passes from the capillaries to the venules (small veins). The venules feed into larger veins, which eventually merge into the superior and inferior vena cavae, large vessels that consolidate the blood flow from the head, neck, and arms and from the trunk and legs, respectively (see also circulatory system). The vena cavae direct the blood back into the heart. The walls of a vein are formed of three layers like the walls of an artery. However, these layers are thinner and less muscular and collapse when empty. With such notable exceptions as the portal system, most veins contain valves, formed by pouches in their inner coats, that keep the blood from flowing backward. Valves are most numerous in the veins of the extremities, and are absent in the smallest veins. Veins are subject to inflammation, dilatation or enlargement (as in a varicose vein), rupture, and blockage by blood clots (thrombosis).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.