Understanding the Lymphatic System

One of the key functions of the lymphatic system is to remove cellular waste. Damage to the lymphatic system leads to insufficient drainage and a collection of excess lymph fluid. This results in a swelling and is called lymphoedema.

Understanding the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system runs throughout your body in parallel to your blood vessels. It comprises hundreds of lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and lymphatic capillaries spread throughout your body. The lymph vessels collect and return excess fluid from all over the body, filter and concentrate it, and then deliver it back into the blood circulation.

How does the lymphatic system work?

Lymph vessels and capillaries collect fluid from the spaces between the cells, from all over your body. Once the fluid passes into the lymphatic vessels, it is called lymph. The fluid is filtered by forcing it through lymph nodes. Lymph vessels have one-way valves that act like gates and direct the lymph fluid in one direction. Your muscles' movement, pulsation from your arteries, and breathing squeezes the lymph vessels which supports the lymph transport. Manual Lymphatic Drainage(MLD) and compression therapy are external ways to help facilitate the lymph drainage.

What does the lymphatic system do?

Fighting infection: The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It produces and releases cells that are called lymphocytes, also known as white blood cells, which defend your body against infection.

Lipid (fat) absorption: The lymphatic system also absorbs lipids (fat) from the gut and transports them to the blood.

Maintaining the body's fluid levels: The lymphatic system collects excess fluid, including waste produced by your body's cells. It filters the fluid and transports it back into your blood system.

What happens when the lymphatic system does not work properly?

A damaged lymphatic system may cause a collection of the lymph fluid, and this, in turn, causes swelling to the affected area of the body, for example an arm or a leg. This swelling is called lymphoedema. Lymphoedema is a long-term (chronic) condition. Without treatment, lymphoedema may worsen over time. Long-term damage to the lymphatic system and swelling may result in thickening and scarring of your tissue. This is called fibrosis. In severe cases, the lymphatic fluid may leak through the skin, causing lymphorrhea (commonly known as leaky legs).


Without treatment, lymphoedema can cause further complications. Lymphoedema may put you at a higher risk of developing skin and tissue infections. One example is cellulitis - a bacterial infection of the deeper layers of the skin. When the infection spreads to the blood system it can cause a severe, generalised infection, called sepsis. Lymphoedema also affects the appearance of the body which can add to the impact the condition has on your mental health. All the psychological distress lymphoedema may cause you, increases your risk of experiencing signs of anxiety and depression.

Learn how lymphoedema can be treated

Up next

Signs and Symptoms of Lymphoedema

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