What Is the Lymphatic System

What Is the Lymphatic System & What Does It Do?

Your body is made up of several vital systems, such as your circulatory system and your nervous system. All systems work together to ensure your body stays healthy. The system that helps keep your immune system in check is your lymphatic system. So, what is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, lymph nodes, and fluid. Understanding your lymphatic system can be a key part of preventing lymphedema and similar conditions that affect this system. Below you’ll find a lymphatic system definition, conditions that target your lymphatic system, and more.

What Is the Lymphatic System?
What Are the Parts of the Lymphatic System?
What Is the Function of the Lymphatic System?
What Are Lymphatic System Diseases or Problems?
How Can You Take Care of Your Lymphatic System?
Key Takeaways: What Is the Lymphatic System?

What Is the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is a network that consists of lymph nodes, vessels, and lymph fluid. Your lymphatic system runs throughout your body to filter toxins and waste that could cause bacterial infections. The lymphatic system plays a vital role in your immune system’s health by circulating lymph fluid that contains waste and cellular debris and filtering or trapping this debris before it returns to the circulatory system. This fluid contains fat, protein, water, cellular debris, and white blood cells called lymphocytes that fight infections and diseases that target your body.1

diagram of the lymphatic system

In addition to fighting off infection, the lymphatic system ensures fluid levels are maintained throughout the body and removes chyle from the intestines, which is a fluid containing fats and proteins, and returns it back to the bloodstream.

Because the lymphatic system plays an integral role in your overall health, there are several conditions that can potentially affect it. For example, cancer, surgery, and radiation can damage your lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes, resulting in lymphedema that leads to pain and swelling. By understanding the role of the lymphatic system, you can be more aware of any abnormalities that can impact your health.

In the following sections, you’ll learn more about the individual parts of the lymphatic system and its numerous functions.

What Are the Parts of the Lymphatic System?

In order for the lymphatic system to perform its job, several parts must work together. Lymph vessels allow fluid to travel through the lymphatic system, while the lymph nodes filter that fluid to remove bacteria and abnormal cells, which could potentially include cancer cells. A problem with one part of your lymphatic system can lead to improper lymphatic drainage, which can cause swelling, pain, and numerous other symptoms. To better understand how your lymphatic system works, explore the different parts of the lymphatic system and the roles they play below:

Parts of the lymphatic system

  • Lymph fluid: Lymph fluid is the fluid that flows through your lymphatic system. This fluid is primarily made up of lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that help fight infection by getting rid of bacteria in your bloodstream. Lymph fluid also consists of fat, water, protein, and cellular debris. In patients with lymphedema, the visible swelling is a result of a buildup of lymph fluid, which occurs when there’s a problem with lymphatic drainage.
  • Lymph vessels: The lymph vessels are similar to blood vessels in that they spread into all of your body’s tissues. After passing through a lymph node, lymph fluid flows through the lymph vessels and spread into all of your body’s tissues. Initial lymph vessels, that are within our skin, pick up the fluid from our tissues, pass through a series of lymph nodes to filter and detoxify the fluid, then move into deeper, larger lymph vessels throughout our body that ultimately drain into the cardiovascular system near the clavicle (or collarbone).
  • Lymph nodes: As lymph fluid passes through the lymph vessels, it eventually needs to be filtered out. The lymph nodes are responsible for filtering bacteria, waste, and damaged cells out of the lymph fluid. Your body contains hundreds of lymph nodes, and you can find clusters of lymph nodes in areas of your body like your armpits, chest, neck, and abdomen.2
  • Ducts: Lymphatic ducts are essentially major vessels in the lymphatic system that are responsible for allowing lymph into the veins. This recirculation is the final step of the flow of lymphatic fluid, which is an essential part of maintaining blood fluid levels and preventing infections. There are two main ducts in the lymphatic system, which are known as the right lymphatic duct and the thoracic duct.
  • Spleen: The spleen is an organ that’s located on the left side of your abdomen, responsible for storing and filtering blood. The spleen also creates white blood cells that help your body fight off infections. Like the lymph nodes, your spleen can filter out viruses and bacteria to make sure the fluid that passes through is clean.3
  • Thymus: The thymus is a gland located in the lymphatic system that’s responsible for creating a special type of white blood cell called T-cells. This T-cell production is responsible as a result of a hormone secreted by the thymus, known as thymosin. While the thymus plays an essential role in early development in terms of fighting off infections, the thymus can be surgically removed with little to no effect later in life.4
  • Tonsils: Your tonsils are responsible for catching viruses and bacteria that may enter your body through your nose or mouth. While this is a lesser-known part of the lymphatic system, it’s an essential one when it comes to fighting infections.

What Is the Function of the Lymphatic System?

Your lymphatic system plays a crucial role in protecting your body from viruses and bacteria, but that’s not all it does. There are three primary functions of the lymphatic system, each of which can be hindered by lymphedema and other similar conditions. In this section, we’ll break down the most important functions of the lymphatic system.

Functions of the lymphatic system

  • Returns fluid to blood: Your lymphatic system is responsible for collecting any excess fluid that may come from tissue in your body and returning that fluid to your bloodstream. After this excess fluid is collected and processed through lymph nodes and vessels, the fluid is sent to one of the two main lymphatic ducts. These ducts then allow the lymph fluid to drain back into your bloodstream, where it can circulate throughout your body. If there’s a problem with your lymph nodes or ducts, it may affect your body’s ability to return lymph fluid to the blood.5
  • Absorbs vitamins and fats from the digestive system: Some of the fluids that make up the lymph fluid in your body come from the intestines, and those fluids contain fats, vitamins, and proteins that are essential to your health. When this lymph fluid reaches the bloodstream and is circulated throughout the body, it helps deliver nutrients. These fats are transported in the form of a fluid known as chyle, which is a milky white fluid that’s largely made up of fat.5
  • Defends the immune system: The lymphatic system is responsible for a large part of your body’s immune response. White blood cells in lymph fluid work to fight off viruses and bacteria, which can help prevent infections in the body. Various parts of the lymphatic system create white blood cells as a response to viruses, bacteria, and fungi. If you have a problem with lymphatic drainage, it can affect your body’s ability to attack bacteria and viruses.

What Are Lymphatic System Diseases or Problems?

As previously mentioned, there are numerous diseases and medical conditions that can affect the lymphatic system. Swelling in the lymph nodes is one of the most common symptoms that the lymphatic system is affected by, and this swelling can be present with a minor illness such as a cold or sore throat. If you want to know more about potential lymphatic system diseases and problems, here are some of the most common.

  • Lymphedema: Lymphedema is a medical condition characterized by improper drainage of the lymphatic system. In healthy bodies, lymph fluid travels from lymph node to lymph node before eventually reaching one of the two main ducts, where it’s returned to the bloodstream. In patients with lymphedema, there is a blockage of lymph fluid that causes improper drainage, which can lead to swelling, pain, and other symptoms. You can wear compression garments for lymphedema or use other treatments to help reduce swelling and minimize the effects of symptoms.
  • Cancer: As cancer spreads throughout your body, it can eventually start to impact vital bodily systems that you rely on. Cancer cells that break off from the primary growth and travel through the lymphatic system can end up in lymph nodes throughout the body, which can lead to secondary or metastatic cancer. It’s also important to note that people with certain types of cancer may experience lymphatic system issues if they’ve had a biopsy, radiation, or a lymph node removed to test for cancer.
  • Swollen lymph nodes: Swollen lymph nodes can occur for several reasons. You could have something fairly common like a virus (cold/COVID) or an infection like strep throat, which make resolve with over the counter or prescription medications. Or your swollen lymph nodes could be a sign that cancer is affecting your lymphatic system. If you have swollen, painful lymph nodes, you should get them checked out by a doctor. It could be that you’re dealing with something as simple as a blockage in your lymphatic system, but it’s important to get your lymphatic system back to normal and rule out any serious medical conditions or disorders.

How Can You Take Care of Your Lymphatic System?

When it comes to your body, especially your lymphatic system, it’s up to you to make sure you’re taking proper care. Fortunately, there are numerous actions you can do to prevent lymphatic system problems and promote a healthy lymphatic system. Even better, many of these tips can also benefit your overall health. Here are some ways you can take care of your lymphatic system:

Tips for keeping your lymphatic system healthy

  • Exercise: Exercise is a crucial part of staying healthy. While exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and good mental health, it can also help promote the drainage of lymph fluid in your lymphatic system. If you’re new to exercise, taking time to walk around your house and perform daily tasks is a good start. From there, you can aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day several times a week.
  • Hydration: Staying hydrated is another way to keep your body and lymphatic system healthy. Because the lymphatic system is primarily made up of water, dehydration can make it more challenging for lymph fluid to flow, which can lead to swelling and drainage issues.
  • Healthy diet: Eating a nutritious diet is another way to ensure the health of your lymphatic system. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli are great food sources for your lymphatic system. Your diet should also include omega-3 fatty acids, berries, and healthy herbs and spices such as turmeric and garlic. A healthy diet can help promote the flow of lymphatic fluid and reduce your risk of infection.
  • Manual lymphatic drainage therapy: Learning how to do a lymphatic massage to encourage drainage can be beneficial if you’re experiencing edema. Manual lymphatic drainage therapy is a component of complete decongestive therapy and is a simple process that involves using your hands to gently encourage the flow of lymph fluid away from the swollen areas. Your lymphedema specialist or therapist can teach you how to perform a manual lymphatic drainage massage, which can then be performed at home to supplement any professional treatments you may be receiving.

Key Takeaways: What Is the Lymphatic System?

Your lymphatic system plays key roles when it comes to maintaining proper fluid balance, preventing infections, and transporting nutrients throughout your body. To keep your lymphatic system healthy, it’s important to take care of it with regular exercise, consuming a nutritious diet, and staying hydrated.

However, if you have a condition impacting your lymphatic system, such as lymphedema or a similar condition, the Flexitouch Plus System from Tactile Medical is a simple solution. The Flexitouch Plus System uses pneumatic compression to gently encourage the flow of lymph, and it’s available for head and neck, upper body, and lower body treatment. If you want relief from swelling and pain caused by lymphedema, try the Flexitouch Plus System today.

1. National Cancer Institute. Lymphatic System. Cancer.gov. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/lymphatic-system
2. National Cancer Institute. Lymph Nodes. Cancer.gov. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/lymph-node
3. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg. What Does the Spleen Do? https://www.chp.edu/our-services/transplant/liver/education/organs/spleen-information
4. Thapa P, Farber DL. The Role of the Thymus in the Immune Response. Thorac Surg Clin. 2019 May;29(2):123-131. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6446584/
5. National Cancer Institute. Introduction to the Lymphatic System. Cancer.gov. https://training.seer.cancer.gov/anatomy/lymphatic/