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The Lymphatic System: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

The lymphatic system is one of the most important parts of the immune system; this powerhouse system is so important because its main function is to protect the body from disease and infection.
It is composed of a large system of vessels (veins, arteries and capillaries), nodes (small filters) and organs that are branched out throughout the body. These structures carry a water-like fluid called lymph that contains large amounts of white blood cells, so having lymph flowing through these structures is paramount to maintaining your health as we know that our white blood cells are our “attack cells” that seek to drive disease, infection and illness from our bodies.

Many people have never heard of the lymphatic system before as it does not receive the same amount of attention as other bodily systems like the digestive or cardiovascular system, but this blog aims to fix that and shed more light on why the lymphatic system is so integral to our well-being.

What makes up the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is mostly made up of two structures:

  1. Lymph Nodes: are small, kidney bean-shaped organs which are found throughout the body. There are hundreds of these little “filters” in your body, but the largest collections of lymph nodes can be found in the neck, armpits, groin, elbows and back of the knees. They remove viruses, bacteria and any other substances that the body considers foreign.
  2. Lymphatic Vessels: are similar to blood vessels as they circulate lymphatic fluid throughout the body.

When there is a large number of bacteria, viruses or other foreign substances being filtered through a node or a group of nodes, like when you have a throat infection, they may become swollen and tender when touched. When a lymph node becomes enlarged, it is the body’s immune system reacting to an infection or illness.

How does the Lymphatic System function?

1) Defends the body against infection

The lymphatic fluid travelling through the vessels is brought to the filtering lymph nodes, which have large amounts of white blood cells that fight and filter any bacteria, viruses or other foreign substance within the fluid. This is how the body is kept free of invading foreign bodies and how it prevents infection.

2) Circulate and regulate the fluid levels of the body

The lymphatic system can pick up and return any extra fluid that escapes from the bloodstream. This prevents swelling caused by excessive fluid buildup and keeps the normal levels of fluids in the body and bloodstream where they should be.

3) Absorbing fats from the digestive system

There are unique lymphatic vessels located in the lining of the digestive system where fat and fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed from food. These absorbed fats are then moved to the bloodstream and used throughout the body as needed.

What are some conditions of the Lymphatic System?

1) Lymphadenopathy:

This condition happens when one or multiple lymph nodes become enlarged.

When individual or smaller groups of lymph nodes become enlarged, it is typically in response to an infection, which is called local lymphadenopathy.

When there are large numbers of enlarged lymph nodes involved in multiple parts of the body, it is called generalised lymphadenopathy. This type of the condition can be caused by tuberculosis, HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and other illness or disease.

2) Lymphedema:

This condition occurs when there is swelling due to the buildup and lack of drainage of lymphatic fluid. This accumulation and lack of drainage is often caused by damage or malformation of the lymphatic system and its structures. This swelling is not limited just to the lymph nodes, but includes all lymphatic structures. This is usually seen in the limbs, face and neck, and, in some extreme cases, the swelling becomes so large that the skin becomes thick and almost resembles elephant skin.

3) Lymphatic Cancer:

Lymphatic cancer, or lymphoma, is the uncontrolled growth of lymphatic tissues. It will create an enlarged lymph node that is typically painless and “rubbery” feeling when touched.

Clinical Treatments for Lymphatic Conditions:

The treatments for lymphatic conditions depends on the type of condition.

For lymphedema (swelling due to the build up and lack of drainage of lymph), there is a specific form of Massage Therapy called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD). This technique is used to manually drain the built up fluid when the body itself is unable to move the fluid on its own.

If the condition is due to cancer, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used to eliminate the growths.

Home Treatments:

The easiest and most effective way to reboot a slow lymphatic system and promote lymph drainage is to do some of these activities:

1) Stay hydrated

When the body becomes dehydrated, lymph becomes thicker and its ability to flow through the body is reduced. When your body is properly hydrated, lymph retains its regular liquid state.

In order to stay hydrated, drink plenty of water. Artificially sweetened drinks such as juices and pop do not properly hydrate the body.

2) Use hot and cold water in the shower

When cooled, lymphatic vessels become smaller and, when heated, lymphatic vessels become larger. When stagnant fluid is present, it can be moved by using varying water temperatures in the shower.

  • Begin with hot or warm water in the shower and after a couple of minutes, change the water temperature to cold water. The heat will make the vessels larger and the sudden drop in temperature will make the lymphatic vessels quickly shrink, squeezing the lymphatic fluid and forcing it to flow through the system. This can be done multiple times in repetition.
  • For general lymphatic maintenance, you can simply rinse off at the end of your shower using cold water for 60 seconds.

3) Move around whenever you can

Since the lymphatic system relies entirely on the contraction (shrinking) and relaxation of muscles for the circulation of lymphatic fluid, any kind of movement is beneficial. Lymph can very easily become stagnant from sitting all day, and this is especially an issue as so many people today have sedentary desk jobs that require sitting for prolonged periods of time.

Something as simple as taking a brief walk on your lunch break is beneficial.

Ideally, it is best to have a regular exercise routine: walking, stretching, bouncing and swimming are good and simple exercises to promote the movement of lymph.

4) Bounce on an exercise ball

Bouncing is a great way to stimulate lymph flow!

The gentle, up-and-down movement increases the gravitational pull on the lymphatic system as a whole. This assists with pulling out the stagnant lymph and helping it flow properly throughout the lymphatic vessels.

When getting started with a bouncing technique, begin with a short bouncing duration and gentle movements. The intensity of the exercise should be increased slowly.

5) Be careful which skin care products you use

Your skin absorbs what you put on it.

Everything that you put on your skin, like makeup and lotions, as well as what unintentionally goes on it, like dirt, gets absorbed into the skin. Anything that has synthetic chemicals or preservatives is essentially adding more “gunk” into the lymphatic system that needs to get filtered out.

In turn, this will place additional stress on the lymphatic system. Instead, try and use products that are plant-based and as natural as possible.

6) Eat a healthy diet

Finally, just as many skin care products have synthetic chemicals and preservatives, many foods contain artificial chemicals, preservatives, sweeteners, etc. Any sort of unnatural substance that is absorbed or ingested into your body can create congestion in the lymph.

Though the lymphatic system may not be as famous as some of its counterparts in the body, and it may be difficult to pronounce, it is just as important and worthy of your care and attention.

If you are experiencing swelling that is not going away, give Katie Luu a call at at 403.295.8590.  She would be happy to help with your lymphatic drainage, and get you moving faster and feeling better!

Katie Lue
Katie Luu, Advanced Clinical 3000 Hour Massage Therapist
Blair Schachterle
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