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What Is the Watershed Area?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Medically speaking, a watershed area is a region of the body with a blood supply derived from the ends of two or more arteries. Multiple blood supplies can confer certain advantages, but these areas are also at increased risk of ischemia because they are located at the very end of the circulation. Several regions, including parts of the brain and transverse colon, are watershed areas. This quirk of circulation can be important in medical diagnosis and treatment.

The advantage to a watershed area is that in the event of an interruption of blood supply to one vessel, the other vessel can still meet the need. If the patient has a block or similar problem, the tissue remains fully perfused because it still gets enough blood. Oxygen and nutrient needs can be met, and the patient may not experience symptoms like pain or a decline in function. This confers obvious benefits, particularly for older patients at risk of blockages and other problems.

Blood supply can, however, be interrupted if a patient has low blood pressure, low blood volume, or other issues that limit circulation as a whole. In this case, the dual blood supply cannot make up for the lack of blood. The location at the distal end of the patient's circulation means the vessel has already supplied blood to a number of locations by the time it reaches the watershed area. Consequently, the patient's organs may not get enough blood. This can lead to tissue death and other complications.

One potential issue is a so-called “watershed stroke.” Patients who do not get enough blood in the watershed area of the brain can develop tissue ischemia in the brain cells that rely on a healthy and abundant supply of blood. This can cause declines in brain function that may lead to symptoms like slurred speech and confusion. If the patient does not receive prompt treatment, there is a risk of serious brain damage or death as the cells go into an ischemic cascade. In this phenomenon, dying cells pump out cellular toxins that bathe neighboring cells, killing them off and causing the problem to spread.

Problems with a watershed area can also arise in locations like the colon. The patient's transverse colon may not get enough blood, which causes tissue to die. Patients can experience symptoms like cramps, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. If the condition is not addressed, the severity of the symptoms can increase and the patient may be at risk for complications like peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal cavity that can be fatal if not treated as aggressively as possible.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Telsyst — On Mar 03, 2014

Watershed areas in the body have similarities to watersheds on land. They are feed by various avenues.

On land a watershed area or drainage basin is an area that has local rain or melting snow and ice converge. Like in the human body, there are often different ways the liquid moves into an area.

A land watershed is a very important natural resource. These watersheds need to be treated with the utmost care. When water flows over the ground it picks up nutrients with the water and this can affect the ecology of an area. Unfortunately water also picks up pollutants and sediment that are swept into a water basin and concentrated. Concentrated water pollution can create an area where life can not be sustained, these are called dead zones.

Drainage basins can often contain a vast amount of wildlife, not to mention some rare and protected animals. Watersheds are the favorite of birdwatchers for their attraction to birds.

Watershed basins have always been important to map makers. Often county, town and state lines are marked around watershed districts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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