This article, the very first in a six-part series, gives summary of the lymphatic system, i beg your pardon circulates lymph fluid approximately the human body to drain tissue, carry fat and activate immune responses


This article is the very first in a six-part series about the lymphatic system. It discusses exactly how the mechanism is structured and also how that functions, focusing on organization drainage, fat transportation and also activation of immune responses. It also examines the causes, symptoms and treatment of oedema. Component 2 will emphasis on the lymphatic organs, component 3 will examine immunity in much more detail, part 4 will talk about allergies, anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock, part 5 will emphasis on vaccinations and immunological memory, and component 6 will discuss immunotherapies.

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Citation: items J, Nigam Y (2020) The lymphatic device 1: structure, role and oedema. Nursing time ; 116: 10, 39-43.

Author: john Knight is associate professor in biomedical science; Yamni Nigam is professor in biomedical science; both in ~ the college of Human and also Health Sciences, Swansea University.

This post has to be double-blind peer reviewed


This is the very first article in a six-part series examining the lymphatic system and immunity. The provides an introduction of the structure and duty of the lymphatic system, focusing primarily top top its role in organization drainage. It likewise examines factors that have the right to compromise lymphatic flow, briefly explores the duty of the lymphatic device in fat transportation, and introduces the overlap and also synergy in between the lymphatic and immune systems.

“Oedema the occurs together a an outcome of bad drainage the the lymphatic system is usually described as lymphoedema”

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system deserve to be thought of together a second circulatory mechanism that operation in parallel, and also in conjunction, through the cardiovascular system; it extends into every major region the the body, v the significant exceptions that the brain and spinal cord (Moore and also Bertram, 2018). The significant anatomical materials of the lymphatic device are highlighted in Fig 1.


The lymphatic vessels type the conduits of the lymphatic system, and a watery fluid dubbed lymph runs v them; the term ‘lymph’ comes from the Latin word lympha, an interpretation water. Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic mechanism is no a closed system and also does not have actually a discrete pump analogous to the heart. However, in countless respects, the lymphatic vessels space structurally similar to veins: castle have relatively thin walls and carry lymph under low pressure. For this reason, choose veins, many of the bigger lymphatic vessels room equipped with valves to protect against the backflow that lymph under the affect of gravity.

Lymph flows with several key lymphoid organs, whereby its ingredient is monitored and also modified. The lymphoid organs are divided into:

Primary lymphoid guts (red bone marrow and the thymus gland), wherein lymphocytes are created from immature progenitor cells;Secondary lymphoid offal (the spleen and also lymph nodes), wherein lymphocytes reside and are positioned to mountain immune responses.

The location and roles that the lymphoid organs room summarised in Table 1 and will be explored in more detail in subsequent posts in this series.


The lymphatic system has three significant functions, which are discussed here:

Tissue drainage;Fat transport;Immune responses.

Tissue drainage

Interstitial fluid formation

The left ventricle of the love ejects oxygen-rich blood under high pressure right into the aorta, which is the major systemic artery. Huge arteries branch turn off the aorta to it is provided the upper and also lower areas of the body through blood. Within the organs, arteries subdivide into significantly smaller vessels and eventually into the the smallest arteries that the body, which are termed arterioles. Many arterioles affix to capillary beds, i m sorry permeate right into the organization (Fig 2).


The significant role of capillaries is to distribution blood, ensuring enough oxygen and nutrients are ceded to all cells, while concurrently acting together conduits for:

The collection of metabolic waste products, such together carbon dioxide (CO2);Cellular signals such together hormones.

The circulation of blood into capillary bed is regulation by small rings of smooth muscle called pre-capillary sphincters; as soon as these are dilated (open), blood from the arterioles operation in under high pressure. In most tissues, the capillary walls are porous, which allows fluid come be thrust out through the capillary walls by a procedure called filtration. As this fluid collects in the little interstitial spaces that surround cells, that is described as interstitial fluid or organization fluid.

Interstitial fluid bathes most human cells and also has a composition comparable to the of blood plasma, minus the bigger plasma protein that room too huge to physical pass through the pores in the capillary walls. The average adult human body has roughly 11-12L the interstitial fluid filling interstitial spaces, wherein it functions as the major exchange medium in most human tissues. Freshly produced interstitial liquid is a complex mixture the is well-off in oxygen and also several other components, such as:

Sugars (primarily glucose) – for metabolism;Amino mountain – for building proteins;Lipids – for metabolism and synthesis of cabinet membranes and also chemical signal such together hormones;Electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, calcium and also chloride – crucial for osmotic/electrochemical balance and also as co-factors for enzymes and also structural cellular proteins;Hormones – come regulate internal physiology and ensure homeostasis;Waste assets from to move metabolism, consisting of CO2 and nitrogenous waste assets such as urea and also uric acid.

As interstitial liquid is required out at the arterial end of the capillary bed, the blood continuing to be in the capillaries is thicker and an ext viscous, and also so moves much more slowly. It also has a greater concentration of soluble materials, such as plasma proteins albumin and fibrinogen, which exert one osmotic pull. Together a result, interstitial fluid rich in rubbish metabolites returns to the blood towards the venous end of the capillary bed, eventually draining right into the venules come be carried away in the venous system.

Interstitial fluid drainage and lymph formation

Approximately 85% of the liquid lost in ~ the arterial end of the capillary bed is reclaimed right into the blood at the venous end (Herlihy, 2018). The staying 15% is added to the interstitial fluid bathing the cells. Together this procedure is perpetual, the interstitial fluid surrounding the cells is continually gift renewed and also replaced.

Without sufficient drainage, excess interstitial liquid can accumulate in the tissues, resulting in swelling (oedema) and, potentially, compression of regional blood vessels and subsequent organization damage. The major role that the lymphatic system is come continually collect excess interstitial fluid and also drain it away from the tissues.

Interwoven amongst the capillary beds room blind-ended lymphatic capillaries (Fig 2); the wall surfaces of this vessels are composed of cell that kind overlapping flaps, which function as unidirectional mini-valves. Highly porous, they act like sponges, soaking increase excess fluid from the interstitial spaces. Unequal the bigger lymphatic vessels, this lymphatic capillaries lack a muscular wall or internal valves; together such, they depend on capillary action to draw excess liquid away native the tissues and carry it come the progressively larger lymphatic vessels.

As soon as interstitial fluid enters the lymphatic capillaries it is described as lymph; in ~ this stage, newly formed lymph is usually a clear, transparent liquid that each other water.

Movement the lymph

It was formerly thought the the motion of lymph v the lymphatic mechanism was a passive process, reliant top top the physical motions of the body. As with veins, contraction of skeletal muscle compresses lymphatic vessels, elevating the push inside with internal valves in the medium and larger lymphatic vessels ensuring a steady upward motion of the lymph.

Although bodily motion does play an important role, it has actually subsequently been uncovered that the walls of bigger lymphatic vessels are equipped with a specialised form of muscle, which is structurally intermediate in between the smooth muscle that lines arteries and veins and also the cardiac muscle located in the myocardium the the heart (Scallan et al, 2016). This unique muscle type actively pumps by contracting in rhythmic tide (similar come the peristaltic motions of the gastrointestinal tract), ensuring progressive, steady activity of lymph. These rhythmic contractions that the lymphatic courage walls enhance the motion of lymph created through bodily movement; they also ensure adequate movement of lymph when the human body is stationary or at rest.

Composition of lymph

Initially, in the smaller sized lymphatic ship originating in the tissue capillary beds, lymph is usually transparent or straw-coloured, similar to plasma. This shows its origins, and it is chemically virtually identical to interstitial fluid. However, by the time it reaches bigger lymphatic vessels, it has mixed through the commodities of fat digestion and takes on a cloudy or milky appearance; in ~ this stage it is referred to as chyle.

Return the lymph come the cardiovascular system

Lymph at some point enters the larger-diameter lymphatic vessels recognized as lymphatic trunks, which space equipped with robust valves come ensure lymph is progressively transported upwards versus the traction of gravity. The largest of the lymphatic vessels is the thoracic duct, i m sorry is commonly 5-7mm in diameter and also carries about 75% that the body’s lymph (Johnson et al, 2016). As the surname implies, the thoracic duct dead lymph upwards with the thoracic cavity (Fig 1); lymphatic circulation is aided by typical breathing movements, i beg your pardon rhythmically compress the walls of the thoracic duct, effectively creating a ‘milking’ effect. The thoracic duct terminates at and discharges its contents into the left subclavian vein, ensuring blood volume is kept by recycling liquid that source from the blood during capillary filtration. In ~ the allude where the duct empties right into the subclavian vein, a small bicuspid valve prevents backflow the venous blood right into the lymphatic device (Ilahi et al, 2020).

Thoracic injuries, for instance following a roadway traffic accident, can result in tearing that the thoracic duct and leakage that chyle into the pleural cavity. This form of pleural effusion is recognized as a chylothorax and also can cause lung compression, making breathing difficult. Chylothorax may also follow accidental injury come the thoracic duct throughout surgery or blockage that the thoracic duct, for instance through malignancies such together lymphoma. This boosts the hydrostatic lymph pressure and causes chyle leakage (Rudrappa and Paul, 2019).

Oedema and lymphoedema

Oedema can be defined as one over-accumulation of fluid in the interstitial spaces, which leader to visible swelling of the soft tissues. Since oedema is subject to gravity, it becomes much more apparent in the distal areas of the lower limbs and is often an especially noticeable in the ankles and feet. Many oedema is referred to as pitted oedema, due to the fact that pressing the area reasons a pit to form as the fluid is driven away; the pit progressively disappears after ~ several secs as fluid returns.

Oedema have the right to have a selection of basic causes; the three discussed listed below are negative venous return, enhanced vascular permeability, and poor drainage by the lymphatic system.

Poor venous return is generally seen in right-handed heart failure, where the right side the the heart becomes less efficient at collecting venous blood from the inferior and superior vena cava and also pumping it through the pulmonary circulation that the lungs. This leader to a back-up the venous pressure, reduce the reabsorption and clearance that interstitial fluid from the capillary beds. This kind of peripheral oedema is particularly noticeable in the reduced limbs, v ankle and foot swelling typically observed. In later on stages of heart failure, the oedema may become so significant that liquid leaks through the skin the the legs (weeping oedema) or collects in fluid-filled blisters (Aviles, 2019). Long periods the immobility, such as an extensive hospital bedrest, also reduce blood flow in the veins the the legs and also can result in venous stasis and reduced venous return (Knight et al, 2018). Numerous women endure a mild oedema in the later stages of pregnancy once the huge veins such together the worse vena cava in the abdomen come to be compressed as the infant grows; this often leads come fluid buildup and swelling in the legs.

Increased vascular permeability is typically seen in areas of infection, irritation or injury wherein inflammatory mediators, such together histamine and prostaglandins, induce loosening the the junctions between surrounding cells in the capillary walls. This results in the leakage of inflammatory exudate, which accumulation in the interstitial spaces. Raised vascular permeability can additionally be associated with fluctuations in the female sex hormone oestrogen that occur during the expression cycle and also pregnancy.

Oedema that occurs together a result of negative drainage that the lymphatic device is usually described as lymphoedema. In the UK this is many frequently connected with cancer, either resulted in by blockages that occur due to metastatic spread or adhering to surgery to remove local lymph nodes. Because that example, removed of the axillary lymph nodes (axillary dissection) is encourage in many instances of chest cancer. Lymphatic drainage of the arm typically passes with the axilla, therefore, axillary dissection can lead come pronounced lymphoedema the the arm (Fig 3).


Symptoms incorporate a heavy, aching limb and also weakness. Left untreated, it might progress come chronic lymphoedema and, in major cases, the development of hard fibrotic tissue, i m sorry inhibits oxygen supply to the impacted areas. Patients may end up being prone to repetitive skin infections and also develop skin ulcers the are challenging to heal. Severely obese patients through a human body mass table of contents (BMI) end 50 are also prone come lymphoedema which, in plenty of cases, have the right to be severe and also disfiguring. The link between extreme obesity and also lymphoedema is unclear. However it has been hypothesised that boosted adipose tissue buildup may please lymphatic vessels, reducing tissue drainage, while raised inflammation may damage lymphatic vessels, reducing your tissue thickness and capability to collect and also pump lymph (Nitti et al, 2016; Greene et al, 2015). The finish blockage that lymphatic vessels deserve to lead to an extreme lymphoedema dubbed elephantiasis.

Filarial elephantiasis

In dry regions, the bites that infected mosquitoes transmit microscopic, threadlike, filarial worms. The parasites go into the lymphatic vessels and also are brought to regional lymph nodes, whereby they cause far-ranging blockages in a an illness called lymphatic filariasis, which can an outcome in lymphoedema (Mohammad, 2018). Because lymphatic filariasis mostly occurs within negative urban and also rural populations, the lymphoedema frequently remains untreated and develops into irreversible elephantiasis. In 2018, 893 million people in 49 nations were life in locations that compelled preventive chemotherapy to avoid the spread out of infection.

Treatment the lymphoedema

There are several treatments accessible for relieving chronic lymphoedema, including:

Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), which entails gentle, rhythmic massage to encourage the flow of lymph;Complete decongestive therapy, which incorporates therapeutic exercise, applications of short-stretch compression bandages, skincare and also MLD;Sequential gradient pump therapy, which helps rest up fibrotic tissue to re-enable activity of lymph.

Fat transport

Within the gastrointestinal tract most nutrient absorption takes ar in the ilium, i beg your pardon is equipped v tiny, finger-like projections dubbed villi that massively increase its full surface area. Every villus consists of a complex, extremely convoluted blood capillary network and a central blind-ended lymphatic vessel referred to as a lacteal (Fig 4).


Following the processes of mechanical and also chemical digestion, the commodities of carbohydrate cradle (monosaccharide sugars such together glucose) and protein digestion (amino acids) are took in directly v the walls of the villi into the blood capillary network and also transported come the liver via the hepatic portal vein.

Larger-chain fat acids carry out not get in the blood directly; instead they enter the columnar epithelial cell lining the villi, and are coated and packaged through a mixture of cholesterol and also protein to type small spherical aggregates called chylomicrons which room then took in directly into the lymphatic system’s central lacteals (Nigam et al, 2019). The lymphatic mechanism is a significant route because that the transport of the assets of fat cradle and, although it carries big amounts of modified lipids, that does not show up to be vulnerable to the accumulation of fat plaque that can influence arteries.

“Many women endure mild oedema in pregnancy; this regularly leads to fluid build-up and ede in the legs”

Immune responses

Virtually all tissues in the human being body are drained through the lymphatic system, therefore, any kind of infections within organs or tissues usually an outcome in the pathogenic particles – bacteria, viruses or fungal cell – turn in the lymph. Transparent the lymphatic system, strategically located collections that lymphoid tissue called lymph nodes trap and process pathogens and activate specific immune responses that ultimately lead to microorganism destruction. Adults generally have about 600 of these bean-shaped nodes, which vary in size and typically enlarge and also become tender and also inflamed in the existence of epidemic (Mohseni et al, 2014). Enlargement the the lymph nodes is referred to as lymphadenopathy; swollen, soft nodes are usually easily palpable by proficient clinicians. Lymph node assessment deserve to provide beneficial diagnostic information around potential sites of infection – for example, the cervical lymph nodes that the neck commonly show lymphadenopathy in upper-respiratory-tract or middle-ear infections. The role of lymph nodes in sequestering international material and also participating in immune responses will be examined in detail in the third component of this series, i beg your pardon examines antibody-mediated immune responses.

Key points

The lymphatic mechanism works in parallel v the cardiovascular system and also has a network of ship and vital lymphoid organsThe device circulates lymph approximately the body, draining tissue, delivering fat and activating immune responsesAn over-accumulation of lymph leads to ede of the soft tissues dubbed oedema; this includes lymphoedema, which is caused by negative lymphatic drainage

Also in this series

ReferencesAviles F (2019) controlling the ‘weepy leg’ the chronic wound edema. Today’s Wound Clinic; 13: 9, 30-31.Greene AK et al (2015) Obesity-induced lymphedema nonreversible following enormous weight loss. Plastic and Reconstructive surgery – worldwide Open; 3: 6, e426.Herlihy B (2018) Lymphatic system. In: The human Body in Health and Illness. Elsevier.Ilahi M et al (2020) Anatomy, Thorax, Thoracic Duct. Sweetheart Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing.Johnson OW et al (2016) The thoracic duct: clinical importance, anatomic variation, imaging, and embolization. European Radiology; 26: 8, 2482-2493.Knight J et al (2018) effects of bedrest 1: arrival and the cardiovascular system. Nursing Times; 114: 12, 55-58.Mohammad FI (2018) Filarial worms. Journal of worldwide Pharmaceutical Research; 45, 89-93.Mohseni S et al (2014) Peripheral lymphadenopathy: approach and diagnostic tools. Iranian newspaper of clinical Sciences; 39: 2(Suppl), 158-170.Moore JE, Bertram CD (2018) Lymphatic device flows. Annual evaluation of liquid Mechanics; 50: 1, 459-482.Nigam Y et al (2019) Gastrointestinal street 4: anatomy and role of the jejunum and also ileum. Nursing Times; 115: 9, 41-44.Nitti MD et al (2016) Obesity-induced lymphatic dysfunction is reversible through weight loss. The journal of Physiology; 594: 23, 7073-7087.Rudrappa M, Paul M (2019) Chylothorax. Endowment Island, FL: StatsPearls Publishing.

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Scallan JP et al (2016) Lymphatic pumping: mechanics, mechanisms and also malfunction. The journal of Physiology; 594: 20, 5749-5768.