To better understand lymphedema and chronic swelling, let’s get to know the parts of our body that have a direct impact on us.
Throughout our body, the lymphatic system runs alongside our circulatory system and basically acts as our trash collecting system. The circulatory system leaks watery fluid into our tissues which is filled with oxygen and nutrients that nourish our cells. Once this fluid has completed its job, our lymphatic system then removes the waste and extra fluid.
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 part of the system. The 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 to start this process again. Along the way, the lymph fluid passes through multiple lymph nodes which clean the fluid before returning it to our circulatory system.
Unlike the circulatory system which has the heart as a central pump, the lymphatic system does not have a central pump. Although lymphatic vessels have some pumping ability, it's not enough. As a result, 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.
For those of us that deal with chronic swelling, understanding the design of the lymphatic system allows us to play a big part in helping to support its function through self care activities.