The human body is a complex collection of many systems, all of which are designed by nature to perform specific tasks that allow functions such as respiration, mobility, and cognitive reasoning. While most people go about their entire lives not bothering to know more about the internal makeup of their body, it is always a good idea to become well informed and it is never too late to start.
The lymphatic system is perhaps one of the least known biological networks, mainly due to the lack of information disseminated regarding its structure and function. However, this system is nevertheless very important as it plays a vital role in keeping the body at its optimal condition.
What is the lymphatic system?
This system is a network of tubes and vessels that are designed to drain fluid (called lymph) from various parts of the body. All the lymph collected is emptied back to the bloodstream and circulates around the body once more.
Human lymphatic system functions
Effective removal of Interstitial Fluid in the tissues
There is always a healthy amount of interstitial fluid in the tissues, but at some point, it has to be released. If there is a malfunction in the lymphatic system, the fluid may build up and cause swelling of the tissues (as in the case of edema).
Absorption and transport of essential fatty acids as well as fat from the digestive system in the form of Chyle. Chyle is produced in the digestive system and essentially becomes nutrients that are distributed to various parts of the body.
Transport of white blood cells
Transporting of white blood cells (WBC) to and from the lymph nodes into the bones, specifically the marrow. White Blood Cells are essentially in fighting off infection and the lymphatic system ensures that enough levels are delivered through the bloodstream in a timely manner. Any delays in this process can cause a person to become highly susceptible to any and all types of infections.
Transport of APCs or Antigen Presenting Cells, such as dendritic cells, macrophages, certain B cells, and some activated epithelial cells to the lymph nodes in order to stimulate proper immune response- APCs, also known as accessory cells display foreign antigens which are recognized by the immune system (via T cells). They essentially confirm the existence of foreign bodies so that the immune system can react accordingly.
What are lymph nodes?
Most people have heard of lymph nodes, especially in reference to cancer. However, these structures are just as big a mystery to many as the lymphatic system itself. Lymph nodes are small and often bean-shaped growths that are located in clusters on various areas of the body. These nodules can be found on the armpits, neck, groin, chest, and abdomen.
What is the primary function of lymph nodes?
These structures are largely responsible for generating immune cells that fend of attackers (infections). In addition, lymph nodes also perform filtering duties that remove bacteria and cancer cells from the lymph fluid. It is very important that the nodes function well since even the slight mishap in the filtering process can cause the body to develop cancer (in one or more areas) and/or bacterial infection.
Organs and parts of the lymphatic system
This is a type of connective reticular tissue that contains immunity cells.
While seemingly an inconsequential organ, the tonsils actually play a vital part in the organization of the human immune system. This organ is an aggregation of several lymph nodes under the mucus membrane of the mouth (oral cavity). Physicians always check for possible inflammation of the tonsils when determining whether a patient is potentially suffering from bacterial infection. In some cases, it may become necessary to remove the tonsils in order to prevent further infection or to reduce the rate of recurrence.
As mentioned above, these nodules are placed in several areas of the body. Swollen nodules are often indicative of cancer, tumor, or a certain type of bacterial and/or viral infection.
Located in the lower left corner of the abdominal cavity, this organ is responsible for filtering the blood and removing harmful microscopic foreign bodies. It also removes damaged red blood cells so that they are not redistributed around the body through the bloodstream. Trivia: The spleen can hold up to 40 ml of blood at any given time, which makes it a pseudo-blood reservoir for when the body needs an extra supply, i.e. sudden injuries or during extraneous exercise.
This bilobed (means having two lobes) gland that is located in the upper (superior) mediastinum, dividing the left and right thoracic cavity (sternum) is a specialized organ that is responsible for producing lymphocytes (T cells).
Disorders of/or associated with the lymphatic system, its organs or sub-systems
(Causes, signs/symptoms, and possible treatment options)
Lymphedema or lymphatic edema
This condition is characterized by the swelling of limbs, neck, face, and abdomen. It is caused by the accumulation of fluid in the tissues due to a malfunction in the lymphatic system, specifically its filtering function. Extreme cases of this condition exist, and are collectively referred to as Elephantiasis (named for the thick appearance of the skin and limbs resembling that of an elephant’s).
This type of cancer is usually caused by the accumulation of damaged WBC or White Blood Cells in the body. Patients afflicted with this disease have a very good chance of survival since this type of cancer is easily controlled and treated, especially when diagnosed early. Radiation therapy and/or a course of chemotherapy are usually recommended to patients suffering from this condition. Conversely, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is more debilitating and has a very low survival rate.
This disease is characterized by the formation of one or more cysts or lesions from lymphatic vessels. As of yet, the particular cause of this disease is unknown. Among the signs and symptoms include respiratory disturbance (wheezing, coughing, sneezing, all without the presence of phlegm or any apparent respiratory infection), abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, food intolerance, indigestion, skeletal anomalies (pathological fractures not resulting from physical trauma), numbness, tingling, and other neurological indicators. While there is no specific course of treatment for this particular condition, certain medications and therapies are prescribed in order to manage and/or alleviate most of the symptoms.
This type of malignant tumor is a rare condition that is characterized by the appearance of bruises on the lower extremities. The bruise usually progresses fast and develops into a crusted ulcer, and eventually leads to tissue necrosis (death of the affected flesh). This is often a primary or secondary complication to lymphedema, and is treated via amputation of the affected area.
This condition is common in children, but also occurs often in adults. It is caused by the lack of RBCs or Red Blood Cells in the system due to Iron deprivation. Patients who suffer from Anemia often experience unexplained dizziness, weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite, constant lethargy, and sometimes depression. A routine blood test can easily confirm the diagnosis for this disease and the treatment is usually supplementation (iron pills to increase healthy RBCs). In certain cases, however, Anemia can lead to more serious conditions such as Leukemia, which is a type of cancer that is proven fatal if not treated early.
This infection is mainly caused by the Epstein – Barr virus (EBV), and is commonly referred to as kissing disease. It occurs mainly in young adults (12-19), and is easily treated using pain relievers and fluids. There is actually no cure for the disease itself, but symptoms are managed and alleviated accordingly in order to relieve the stress on the body. This infection can recur depending on the habits and lifestyle choices of the patient so it is very important to observe proper hygiene and avoid intimate contact with strangers.
This is perhaps one of the most common disease related to the lymphatic system. Tonsillitis is characterized by the swelling of the tonsils, which is caused by bacterial infection. In most cases, the physician prescribes wide spectrum antibiotics, although sometimes surgery (removal of the tonsils) may be required depending on the severity of the infection. In rare cases, the infection spreads to other parts of the body and cause serious complications such as RHD or Rheumatic Heart Disease. Some of the most common signs include persistent sore throat (lasts for more than a week), red and swollen tonsils, difficulty swallowing, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, chills, on-and-off fever that lasts for a few days to a week, and trismus (difficulty opening the mouth).
Sleep and the lymphatic system
(How to care for your lymphatic and immune system)
Many people do not put much premium on a good night’s rest and regular sleep. While taking supplements and exercising regularly are definitely positive health habits, it is also important to get enough sleep at night (at least 7 hours for adults and 9 hours for children below 13 years of age). The body undergoes regular repairs during REM, which occurs about 2-3 hours after you fall asleep.
It is very important to establish normal sleeping patterns in order to allow the body to heal itself, specifically by producing enough immune cells to protect the internal system. In addition, you might also want to start eating more healthy foods, i.e. green leafy vegetables and cut back on synthetic products that are laced with chemicals and carcinogens. The body has a better chance of maintaining its healthy state when it is not constantly subjected to harmful elements.
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