To better understand lymphedema, let’s get to know the parts of the lymphatic system that has a direct impact on our condition.
Our lymphatic system is part of our immune system and runs throughout our entire body. As one of its functions, our lymphatic system works hand in hand with our circulatory system to help drain and clean waste filled fluid from our tissues. To nourish our cells, the circulatory system leaks watery fluid into our tissues, called interstitial fluid (fluid that occupies the free space in our tissues), filled with oxygen and nutrients. Once this fluid has completed its job, our circulatory system takes about 90% of it back in, and our lymphatic system drains the remaining 10% plus waste, large proteins and any bacteria.
The superficial lymphatic system, which lies just beneath our skin, is the part of the lymphatic system that is designed to take in this waste filled fluid. Because it runs on very low pressure, fluid can easily enter this aspect of the system. Interstitial fluid is “sucked” in by an extensive network of lymphatic capillaries (really small vessels) that run throughout our tissues. Once in the system, this fluid, now called lymph fluid, travels through a series of larger and larger lymph vessels, on its way back to being returned to our circulatory system. Along the way, the lymph fluid passes through multiple lymph nodes which cleans the fluid before returning it to our circulatory system.
However, unlike our circulatory system, which has the heart as a central pump, our lymphatic system has none. Although lymphatic vessels have some pumping ability, our lymphatic system relies heavily on muscle contractions from body movement and even breathing, to help take in and propel the lymph fluid through this one way system. To keep the fluid from flowing backward once in the system, lymphatic vessels have valves that open and close, to keep it traveling in the right direction.
When our lymphatic system is working well, it’s like a well oiled machine. The movements within our lymphatic system pretty much happen simultaneously. The pathways leading back to the circulatory system are clear because the fluid is constantly on the move which allows the capillaries in your tissues to easily take in fluid.
If you picture the network of waterways in a river system, that’s basically a great way to imagine the lymphatic system. Small streams and creeks, which branch out in many directions (even though the water still travels in the same direction), collect the water. Then, the water is transported through larger and larger waterways until it reaches its final destination and empties into either a lake or an ocean.
Our lymphatic system is an amazing system and lucky for us, because of how it’s designed, there is a lot we can do through self care to help it function to the best of its ability!