Bleeding time is a crude test of hemostasis (the arrest or stopping of bleeding). It indicates how well platelets interact with blood vessel walls to form blood clots.
Bleeding time is used most often to detect qualitative defects of platelets, such as Von Willebrand's disease. The test helps identify people who have defects in their platelet function. This is the ability of blood to clot following a wound or trauma. Normally, platelets interact with the walls of blood vessels to cause a blood clot. There are many factors in the clotting mechanism, and they are initiated by platelets. The bleeding time test is usually used on patients who have a history of prolonged bleeding after cuts, or who have a family history of bleeding disorders. Also, the bleeding time test is sometimes performed as a preoperative test to determine a patient's likely bleeding response during and after surgery. However, in patients with no history of bleeding problems, or who are not taking anti-inflammatory drugs, the bleeding time test is not usually necessary.
Before administering the test, patients should be questioned about what medications they may be taking. Some medications will adversely affect the results of the bleeding time test. These medications include anticoagulants, diuretics, anticancer drugs, sulfonamides, thiazide, aspirin and aspirin-containing preparations, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The test may also be affected by anemia (a deficiency in red blood cells). Since the taking of aspirin or related drugs are the most common cause of prolonged bleeding time, no aspirin should be taken two weeks prior to the test.
There are four methods to perform the bleeding test. The Ivy method is the traditional format for this test. In the Ivy method, a blood pressure cuff is placed on the upper arm and inflated to 40 mM Hg. A lancet or scalpel blade is used to make a stab wound on the underside of the forearm. An automatic, spring-loaded blade device is most commonly used to make a standard-sized cut. The area stabbed is selected so that no superficial or visible veins are cut. These veins, because of their size, may have longer bleeding times, especially in people with bleeding defects. The time from when the stab wound is made until all bleeding has stopped is measured and is called the bleeding time. Every 30 seconds, filter paper or a paper towel is used to draw off the blood. The test is finished when bleeding has stopped completely.
The three other methods of performing the bleeding test are the template, modified template, and Duke methods. The template and modified template methods are variations of the Ivy method. A blood pressure cuff is used and the skin on the forearm prepared as in the Ivy method. A template is placed over the area to be stabbed and two incisions are made in the forearm using the template as a location guide. The main difference between the template and the modified method is the length of the cut made.
For the Duke method, a nick is made in an ear lobe or a fingertip is pricked to cause bleeding. As in the Ivy method, the test is timed from the start of bleeding until bleeding is completely stopped. The disadvantage to the Duke method is that the pressure on the blood veins in the stab area is not constant and the results achieved are less reliable. The advantage to the Duke method is that no scar remains after the test. The other methods may result in a tiny, hairline scar where the wound was made. However, this is largely a cosmetic concern.
There is no special preparation required of the patient for this test. The area to be stabbed should be wiped clean with an alcohol pad. The alcohol should be left on the skin long enough for it to kill bacteria at the wound site. The alcohol must be removed before stabbing the arm because alcohol will adversely affect the tests results by inhibiting clotting.
If a prolonged bleeding time is caused by unknown factors or diseases, further testing is required to identify the exact cause of the bleeding problem.
A normal bleeding time for the Ivy method is less than five minutes from the time of the stab until all bleeding from the wound stops. Some texts extend the normal range to eight minutes. Normal values for the template method range up to eight minutes, while for the modified template methods, up to 10 minutes is considered normal. Normal for the Duke method is three minutes.
A bleeding time that is longer than normal is an abnormal result. The test should be stopped if the patient hasn't stopped bleeding by 20-30 minutes. Bleeding time is longer when the normal function of platelets is impaired, or there are a lower-than-normal number of platelets in the blood.
A longer-than-normal bleeding time can indicate that one of several defects in hemostasis is present, including severe thrombocytopenia, platelet dysfunction, vascular defects, Von Willebrand's disease, or other abnormalities.
Henry, J. B. Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1996.
Illustrated Guide to Diagnostic Tests. Ed. J. A. Lewis. Spring-house, PA: Springhouse Corp. 1994.
Jandl, J. H. Blood, Textbook of Hematology. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1996.
John T. Lohr, PhD
Hemostasis—The stopping of bleeding or blood flow through a blood vessel or organ.