Overview of the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune system, along with the thymus, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, appendix, and Peyer patches in the small intestine.
Like the venous system, the lymphatic system transports fluids throughout the body. The lymphatic system consists of
Lymphatic vessels, located throughout the body, are larger than capillaries, and most are smaller than the smallest veins. Most of the lymphatic vessels have valves like those in veins to keep the lymph, which can clot, flowing in the one direction (toward the heart). Lymphatic vessels drain fluid called lymph from tissues throughout the body.
Lymph begins as fluid that has diffused through the very thin walls of capillaries into the space between cells. Most of the fluid is reabsorbed into the capillaries and the rest is drained into the lymphatic vessels, which eventually return it to the veins. Lymph also contains many other substances including
Lymph nodes are collection centers for lymph. All lymph passes through strategically placed lymph nodes, which filter damaged cells, cancer cells, and foreign particles out of the lymph. Lymph nodes also contain specialized white blood cells (for example, lymphocytes and macrophages) designed to engulf and destroy damaged cells, cancer cells, infectious organisms, and foreign particles. Thus, important functions of the lymphatic system are to remove damaged cells from the body and to provide protection against the spread of infection and cancer.
The lymph vessels drain into collecting ducts, which empty their contents into the two subclavian veins, located under the collarbones. These veins join to form the superior vena cava, the large vein that drains blood from the upper body into the heart.
Lymphatic System: Helping Defend Against Infection
The lymphatic system may not carry out its function adequately due to
Blockage (obstruction): Obstruction in the lymphatic system leads to an accumulation of fluid (lymphedema). Obstruction may result from scar tissue that develops when the lymph vessels or nodes are damaged or removed during surgery, by radiation therapy, by injury, or in tropical countries, by infection with a threadworm (filariasis) that blocks the lymphatic ducts.
Cancer: Tumors may block the lymphatic ducts or may travel (metastasize) to lymph nodes near a tumor, interfering with flow of lymphatic fluid through the node. Rarely, a tumor (lymphangiosarcoma) may develop in the lymphatic system.