Understanding the lymphatic system

Your lymphatic system runs throughout your body and is parallel to your venous system. However, unlike your veins, the lymphatic system is not a closed system and has no central pump (i.e. your heart). It is made up of hundreds of lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and lymphatic capillaries spread throughout the body. The lymph vessels generally parallel your body's arteries and veins. The lymph vessels collect and return excess fluid from all over the body, filter and concentrate it, and then return it back into the blood circulation.

Lymph nodes help filter bacteria and other toxins from your body by trapping harmful organisms and using specialized white blood cells to destroy them. These lymph vessels are equipped with valves that make sure fluid can be easily transported. Lymph fluid transport is aided by:

  • Breathing
  • Muscle contractions
  • Pulsation in the arteries
  • External compression including:

    • Manual lymphatic drainage
    • Short stretch bandages
    • Gradient compression garments

What does the lymphatic system do?

  • Fight infection: the lymphatic system transports a watery clear fluid full of proteins and lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are infection-fighting cells. Lymph fluid is clearish yellow to milkly white in color, depending on where it is in the lymph system and how concentrated the lymph fluid is.
  • Lipid (fat) absorption: the lymphatic system also absorbs lipids from the intestine and transports them to the blood.
  • Drain excess fluid: as the blood circulates through the body’s tissues, it leaves behind waste products such as proteins and fluids. Excess fluid is drained through capillaries and into the lymphatic system where it is filtered and returned to the blood.

The Disrupted Lymphatic System

Lymphedema occurs when lymph vessels, lymph collectors, or lymph nodes are damaged, and disrupt the normal flow of lymph fluid. When this damage occurs, the vessels start to swell and block fluid flow. Lymphedema can be in any part of the body, most often in the arms and legs, but also the breast or chest wall, head and neck, or genitals.

Lymphedema is a chronic condition caused by disruption of the lymphatic system. This disruption can lead to swelling, which causes damage to the tissues around the affected area. The body’s natural reaction is to send defense cells to the damaged area, which leads to further disruption, inhibiting fluid flow.