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What Is the Red Blood Cell Distribution Width?

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer

The condition of red blood cells is often an indicator of an individual’s health. One test that is sometimes performed helps measure red blood cell distribution width (RDW); this can determine how much the cells in a sample vary in size. The measurement generally does not represent physical diameter, however. It typically represents the width of a graphical curve that shows how the volume of the cells varies. A normal range is usually between 11% and 15% in the human body.

Red blood cell distribution width is usually determined mathematically; the formula normally includes the mean corpuscular volume, or the average amount of space that each cell takes up. The mathematical principle of standard deviation is applied to the value, and divided by the average volume. A result is then multiplied by 100 to determine the RDW. Medical laboratories typically have instruments that can pick up the pulses produced by red blood cells; stronger pulses are generally produced by larger cells, while weaker ones usually come from smaller cells.

Variability in blood cell size may result in a less optimistic prognosis for people with heart failure.
Variability in blood cell size may result in a less optimistic prognosis for people with heart failure.

Lab reports often indicate the normal range for red blood cell distribution width. The ranges, however, can vary depending on what kind of equipment is used for measurement. If the RDW is high on a blood test, it generally means that the cells vary quite a bit in size; anemia caused by an iron deficiency is sometimes a cause. Low levels of vitamin B12 or folic acid often decrease the count as well. The carbon in the vitamins, needed by the body, can be lacking for normal function to take place.

Tests can be done to measure red blood cell distribution.
Tests can be done to measure red blood cell distribution.

If red blood cell distribution width is abnormally high or low, it may be indicative of a chronic disorder. Diagnosing conditions through testing of RDW is complex and best explained by doctors. Doctors must consider various factors such as age and general health of the patient. It is possible to mention several disorders that doctors may check for when they come across abnormal red blood cell distribution width in a patient. For example, low RDW may be indicative of thalassemia. Whereas high RDW may be indicative of anemia such as microcytic anemia caused by iron deficiency.

Red blood cell distribution correlates with one's health.
Red blood cell distribution correlates with one's health.

Red blood cell distribution width can be correlated with the outcomes of other health conditions. A high variability in blood cell size often results in a less optimistic prognosis for people with heart failure, based on studies. The count can represent an insufficient production of new cells as well as more frequent destruction of them than normal, thus complicating underlying medical conditions.

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      By: pathdoc
      Variability in blood cell size may result in a less optimistic prognosis for people with heart failure.
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      Red blood cell distribution correlates with one's health.
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