The Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is made up of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, lymphatic organs and lymphatic fluid (aka lymph).
The lymphatic vessels course throughout the entire body, and connect the lymph nodes, and lymphatic organs, and transport lymphatic fluid.
The lymphatic system helps to maintain fluid balance (homeostasis) within the body, by removing excess fluid and cellular waste. It also plays a key role in the immune response, nervous system regulation, inflammation and healing, via it’s ability to filter lymph and dispose of foreign particles, before depositing the lymph fluid back into the blood stream.
The lymphatic system, along with the cardiovascular system make up the circulatory system.
The lymphatic system is also closely linked to the gut and nervous system, acting to transport and clear key molecules, to help both systems function efficiently.
What makes up the lymphatic system?
The spleen, thymus, tonsils and bone marrow are all organs which play a role in the lymphatic system, including (but not limited to), producing cells which help fight infection, storing the cells while they mature, and identifying and destroying harmful cells or particles filtered by the lymphatic system.
Lymph nodes are small pea shaped glands, which are made of lymphatic tissue. They help filter the lymph (fluid) as it passes through. Additionally, the nodes store lymphocytes (infection fighting cells), which destroy bacteria and other dangerous material. There are over 700 lymph nodes in the body and 1/3 of them are located in your neck. Lymph nodes can be found in chains (several nodes) or as a singular. Some nodes are located deep within the body and others are more superficial and easily felt by hand.
These are tiny vessels that form a network throughout the entire body to help move lymph (fluid) away from tissues and back into the circulatory system. Lymphatic vessels collect the fluid, transport it through lymph nodes, into larger vessels (which are similar to veins), eventually depositing the fluid into a large vein under your collar bone, called the subclavian vein, to be pumped through the heart and back out into the body.
Lymph fluid is made up of fluid that is drained from cells and other tissues. It is 90% water, 10% cellular waste, proteins, fats, nutrients, hormones, bacteria, viruses, as well as white blood cells, which help fight infection.
How does the lymphatic system move the fluid?
Unlike arteries (and veins - to a lesser extent), which have muscular walls that contract to pump blood around the body, the lymphatic system is rather passive and relies on movement to pump fluid.
This movement can be internal (breathing, muscles contraction from physical activity) or external (compression garments, lymphatic massage).
Inflammation and lymphatics
When an injury occurs, a domino effect is triggered within your body to encourage the healing process. The inflammatory response produces an influx of inflammatory mediators and fluid in the area of cellular damage. Lymphatics play a role in this by changing their contractility to remove excess fluid from surrounding injury, as well as cellular waste, to help the cells to heal and return to homeostasis.
Chronic pain + the lymphatic system
Research is starting to highlight the importance of the lymphatic system in the presence of chronic pain and pathology.
The basic premise is that if the body is unable to clear toxic cellular waste during the healing process, the waste by-products may cause further damage, resulting in the pathology lingering, or causing additional symptoms. This principle is being tested to assess its association with chronic pain, mood disorders, lethargy, cognitive dysfunction and autoimmune diseases.
The main risk factors for lymphatic pathology usually link back to a reduction in lymphatic flow, or increase in demand on the lymphatic system.
Risk factors include:
· Heart disease
· Increased weight
· Lymphectomy (removal of lymph nodes)
Heart disease and increased weight cause an increase in demand of the lymphatic system. Heart disease can lead to swelling of the limbs which requires the lymphatic system to work harder to reduce the oedema within the limbs. Additionally, increased body weight can be associated with decreased physical activity, impacting the effciecny of the lymphatic system.
The removal of lymph nodes (generally in the treatment of cancer), leads to a reduction in nodes which are able to help with filtering out of pathogens, and can result in infections, as well as fluid build-up within adjactent limbs.
What can a practitioner do to help?
Lymphatic drainage massage (aka effleurage) is a technique used by some practitioners to help encourage lymphatic movement throughout the body.
What you can do at home.
Ways to help at home include:
Compression: Compression garments (stockings, socks, sleeves) help with increasing the movement of stagnant fluid.
Intermittent pneumatic compression devices: These devices are commonly found in hospitals, nursing homes and recovery clinics, and help by manually pumping the area of concern to stimulate the movement of fluid.
Movement: Gentle exercises help to contract muscles, which pumps lymph throughout your body. Movement can be as simple as taking deep breathes and pumping your feet (a la the airline videos), to walking, swimming, running, dancing, going to the gym and playing organised sport.
Please be aware that these stratergies may not suit everyone, so please consult your primary healthcare practitioner prior to starting, especially if concerned.
Retrain Health is based in the Northern Rivers, NSW. From our Byron Bay and Ballina clinics, our team provides a range of quality healthcare services and products.
Retrain Health offers osteopathy, remedial massage, strength and conditioning, and PT sessions, with qualified practitioners.
If you are interested in finding out more information or would like to book an appointment, please contact the clinic by phone (02) 6680 7447, send us an email or click here to book an appointment online.