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The Lymphatic System

Updated: Feb 10

The lymphatic system is a really important fluid transport system in our bodies. It is made up of a network of lymph nodes and lymph vessels (similar to veins) that run throughout our body, collecting excess fluid and waste products from our cells and delivering them back into the blood stream. Once the fluid and waste products are back is in the blood stream, they can then be excreted by the kidneys in our urine or synthesised (cleaned or recycled) by our liver.

The fluid in our lymphatic system ( also known as lymph) accesses our blood stream at the big veins the neck, just under the collar bones, and this is where it delivers its fluid waste. So here is how it works: The lymph vessels in your legs bring lymph up to your groin nodes, up through your abdomen and chest and onwards towards the neck. The vessels in your arms bring fluid to the armpit nodes and from there to the neck. The lymph vessels around your internal organs also travel upwards through your abdomen and towards the neck. These lymph vessels all have to work against gravity whereas your brain and head lymphatics vessels drain downward to the lymph nodes of the neck, making it easier. Like any drainage system it can get overloaded or blocked.

The lymphatic system has a lot of important functions:

· It maintains the fluid balance in our arms and legs, making sure that if we swell too much (like in hot weather) the excess fluid is removed and we remain our usual size.

· It is also the main waste disposal system for our cells and our internal organs.

· It is a fat transport system ( absorbing fats from our digestive organs and transporting them into the blood stream where they can be processed)

· It is a really important part of our immune response – the lymph nodes are like a filtering plant, sifting the waste for any signs of virus or bacteria and setting up a battle against any invaders. This is why we get swollen lymph nodes when we have an infection. Our lymph nodes also do their best in fighting off cancer.

Nodes often have to be removed in cancer surgery, and/or they can be damaged from the radiation treatment that you receive. While all this is necessary, it can put you at risk of having fluid imbalance problems with your arm, leg or torso ( depending on where you had the surgery and radiation), and this is what is known as lymphoedema. Luckily, we now know a number of ways to reduce the risk of developing lymphoedema..

· Exercise ( to help ‘pump’ the lymph upwards against gravity)

· Self-lymphatic drainage , also known as lymphatic massage to physically assist the lymph flow

· Compression garments, when required, to ‘squeeze’ excess fluid from swollen limbs

· Skin care to avoid infections and swelling from from cuts, burns and bites

See the videos I created for Mid-West Physiotherapy Clinic ( Limerick) for how to do self- lymphatic drainage

Also, if you have arm lymphoedema and are more than 6 months post-surgery, see my videos on youtube about yoga for arm lymphoedema.

Some people develop lymphoedema ( limb, face or genital swelling) due to vascular problems ( with their veins), being overweight or just being unlucky and inheriting sluggish lymphatics: this is known as primary lymphoedema. Self- massage, targeted exercise and wearing compression garments are also the treatment for this.

Lastly, but not leastly for me, there is also the belief ( yet to be substantiated by research but with compelling patient reports) that a healthy lymphatic system is more likely to clear your waste products and plays a part in preventing or reducing the effects of illnesses and inflammatory disorders. If this is the case, then learning how to massage our lymph vessels is something we all should be doing…like brushing our teeth to prevent bad teeth and gums. I plan to post future blogs and youtube videos on this topic.

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