The lymphatic system is an important part of our health and well-being, and a lot of things can affect how it functions. For example, breast cancer surgery and other types of cancer surgeries where lymph nodes are removed can affect the lymph system.
The lymphatic system includes a network of nodes, vessels, and ducts that go through almost all of our tissues. The system lets lymph, which is a fluid, move through the body, similarly to blood. The lymphatic system is important for fluid balance, the absorption of fatty acids in the stomach, and the regulation of the immune system.
There are around 500 to 600 lymph nodes throughout the body, which swell in response to infection. As mentioned, the lymphatic system is part of our overall immune system, and it also maintains fluid balance in the body.
Below are some of the key things to know about the lymphatic system and its function.
The Functions of the Lymph System
Your lymph system has three primary functions.
The first is balancing fluid. The lymphatic system will return extra fluid and protein from tissues that can’t return through blood vessels. Around 90% of plasma reaching our tissues returns through capillaries and veins, and the other 10% moves through the lymphatic system. If there’s a disruption in fluid processing, it can lead to lymphedema, which is localized swelling.
Another function of the lymphatic system is intestinal function. This system helps your body remove excess fluid, transport fat, and fight infections.
The third function is defending the body from infections and harmful invaders. The lymph nodes and the lymphatic system are what allow your immune system to respond to pathogens that enter your body.
The lymphatic system produces lymphocytes, which are white blood cells. There are two types—T and B cells, both of which travel through your lymphatic system. When these cells reach your lymph nodes, they come in contact with foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, and they form antibodies. The lymphatic system and the function of lymphocytes are part of your adaptive immune response. This immune response is very specific, and it creates a long-lasting response to certain pathogens.
Your lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic tissues in your body, but they’re only one part. There are others.
For example, your thymus gland is a lymphatic organ that’s behind your sternum, which plays a role in the secretion of hormones and the production of T cells.
Your tonsils are part of the lymphatic system, producing antibodies and lymphocytes. Your spleen is lymphoid tissue that produces white blood cells and filters your blood, and your bone marrow is a part of your lymphatic system because this is where your B cell lymphocytes mature.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes can become swollen, indicating something is affecting your lymph system. One reason is that they’re reacting to an infection. Another reason is if the lymph nodes are directly infected.
If you know you have something like the flu or a cold and your lymph nodes are swollen, that’s fairly normal.
Swollen lymph nodes that may require medical attention are swollen for more than two weeks or feel fixed in place or hard. If you have symptoms like night sweats, a fever, or unexplained weight loss, you should also speak to a healthcare provider.
Lymphoma is a serious disease of the lymphatic system. It’s cancer that begins in the lymphatic system. There are different types of lymphoma, including Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Cancer cells can also spread from a primary site through the lymphatic system, leading to enlarged lymph nodes. This is most common in melanoma and breast cancer.
What is Lymphedema?
Finally, lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system isn’t working properly. This can lead to a buildup of fluid that can’t drain, and it can lead to swelling in a leg or arm. The skin might feel hard and tight, and it might be painful. Sometimes with lymphedema, the fluid can leak through the skin.
Obstructions in the lymphatic system can occur because of surgery, radiation therapy, injuries, or other conditions.
Your lymphatic system is one of the most important elements of your overall health. This system drains excess fluids and helps filter foreign bodies. Regular health checkups can help your doctor catch any abnormalities or possible problems with the lymphatic system early.
When someone experiences problems with their lymphatic system, it can lead to serious complications like venous dysfunction and swelling. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you believe you’re experiencing an issue with your lymph system.
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