Polycythemia Vera

What is Polycythemia Vera?

Polycythemia Vera is a medical condition (disorder) that affects a person’s bone marrow. More specifically, this condition is often referred to as a type of blood cancer because it involves a mutation that causes the overproduction of certain types of cells.  It is known to be a cancer of the blood that grows slowly, but it is distinguished from other types of cancer in that it is chronic and incurable.

When a person suffers from polycythemia vera, their bone marrow produces too many blood cells. This blood disorder can affect white blood cells and platelets, but is often most pronounced in red blood cell production and levels. If the bone marrow produces too many red blood cells as occurs with polycythemia vera, the blood becomes overly thick. This can increase a person’s risk of developing blood clots and having other major health crises including heart attack and stroke.

This serious blood condition occurs more often in men than it does in women and often is not detected until a person is more than 40 years old. Polycythemia vera may be caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in the protein known as JAK2 and is known as the JAK2 V617F mutation. While many cases of polycythemia vera involve this mutation, it is not known with certainty if this is a direct cause of the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Polycythemia Vera?

Shortness of breath and trouble breathing when the person is laying down are common symptoms of polycythemia vera. A person may also experience weakness, fatigue, chronic headaches, itchy skin and dizziness. Other symptoms of polycythemia vera are bleeding, full feeling in the abdomen, numbness in the extremities, and symptoms of blood clots.

How is Polycythemia Vera Treated?

Because polycythemia vera has no cure, the treatments available are about managing the condition. The goal is to reduce blood thickness and the likelihood of blood clots as well as to prevent possible excessive bleeding. Regular phlebotomy procedures can help the person reduce the thickness of their blood by removing around a pint of blood a week until the blood cell levels are at desirable levels. Prescription medications can also be used to reduce red blood cell production, or other blood cell levels in the body. If itching is a problem, the person may also be able to use light therapy to help with the discomfort.

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Last Reviewed:
October 08, 2016
Last Updated:
August 29, 2017