The Lymphatic System – What is it for?
Hello everyone and welcome to our last September blog post. This week we’re going to introduce you to your lymphatic system. What it is, what it does, and why your Osteopath loves it so much.
So, what is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is essentially made up of two parts;
- One part of it is a collection of small tubes found right throughout the body, and you can think of these tubes as part of the circulatory system of the body. Say ‘circulatory’ and everyone thinks of blood, arteries and veins, but the buck doesn’t stop there. The lymphatic tubes are well and truly just as important as the tubes that carry blood around the body.
- The other part of the lymphatic system is a collection of larger tissues found in various areas of the body and you can think of these as part of the body’s defence system. So straight away, you can see it’s pretty darn important!
Let us take a look at these areas in a little more detail… Firstly, a little recap for you on circulation: arteries take blood from the heart to the body, and veins take blood back to the heart from the body.
Where does the lymphatic system fit in to all of this?
Well, the tubes (or vessels) of the lymphatic system roughly follow the pathway of the veins of the body (so back towards the heart). The pump of the heart creates pressure, which drives blood through the arteries where it gets distributed around the body providing life-giving nourishment to all of the different tissues of the body (i.e. our skin, muscles, bones and organs).
However, the pressure from the arteries causes some of the fluid and nutrients in blood to leak out into the surrounding areas. And this is where the lymphatic tubes kick in. They pick up the excess fluid and nutrients (mainly proteins) and send it all back towards the heart to be re-used by the body. This ensures every valuable bit of fluid and nutrition in the body is not wasted. Very efficient right?!
What is lymph?
The fluid that travels through lymph vessels is simply called ‘lymph’. The lymph travels through the lymph vessels by a combination of muscle contractions in the vessel walls, and us moving our bodies (another reason why moving is so good for you!).
Along the way back up to the heart, the fluid is passed through a filter station called a lymph node. Here, any of the nasty bacteria, viruses, or even cancer cells that are in the lymph are dealt with swiftly by our defence cells. The freshly cleaned lymph is then sent further along the chain until it reaches a vein close to the heart. It is here where the lymph re-enters the blood and the cycle continues.
Before we forget (just kidding, we never forget!), in the small intestines there are some very specialised lymph vessels which help the body to absorb fats from the foods we eat. This is another important function of the lymphatic system!
Defence, defence, defence!
On the defensive front, there are various tissues located around the body (called lymphoid tissues) where the production of our defence cells occurs. The main tissues include;
- The ‘thymus’ – which is found in the upper chest region, and
- The ‘spleen’ – found in the abdomen.
If it wasn’t for these handy organs, we would be much more susceptible to infection and disease (and death). So, it’s these organs which help to populate our bodies with the lifesaving defence cells. We have a lot to be thankful for with this system!
Osteopaths love their lymphatic systems
So why are we so interested in this system? Well at the heart of Osteopathy lies the principle of maintaining fluid balance and equilibrium throughout the body. We’re all about keeping the flow going.
But sometimes flow of fluid in the body can become compromised, maybe due to injury or disease, and then congestion in the tissues occurs and things start to stagnate. This can lead to a whole host of issues including;
- reduction in movement
- imbalance throughout the body.
Regardless of your issue, our treatment will aim to remove any barriers to a functioning system to reinstate flow of fluid through the body.
Sometimes a dysfunctional lymphatic system can lead to a type of swelling called lymphedema, which is essentially a backlog of lymph fluid. This often occurs in the hands, arms, feet and legs. Depending on the cause, this is something your trusty Osteo is skilled at dealing with, so always seek help if you notice swelling.
We hope this has been interesting and educational, and we hope you now have a newfound respect for the intricacies of the human body. After all, it is what keeps you alive, so look after it!
- Chila, A. 2011. Foundations of Osteopathic Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Australasian Lymphology Association. 2019. What is Lymphoedema? [Online]. Available from: https://www.lymphoedema.org.au/about-lymphoedema/what-is-lymphoedema/ [Accessed 05 Aug 2019