What is the Lymph System

The Lymph system is a major system in our body that probably is the least understood and one of the systems that is barely talked about in health care today. However, really it is of vital importance on a daily basis for our health and overall well-being. The lymph systems primary function is to protect the body from infection and disease via the immune response system according to the National Lymphedema Network. It does this by the production, maintenance and distribution of lymphocytes. The lymphocytes are the “infection fighting cells.”

The spleen and thymus gland produce the lymphocytes. These cells then fight the unhealthy cells and they are transported by little watersheds and vessels to the bloodstream and ultimately flushed out of the body. The Lymph system could be called the body’s own “garbage disposal system,” it gets rid of all the junk.

The lymph system is made up of more than 700-800 lymph nodes throughout the body.

There are chains of nodes and then clusters of nodes in strategic areas. The clusters are located in a specific area to protect that area from invasion. For example, when you get a sore throat often you will often have enlarged lymph nodes on either side of your neck. These nodes collect and filter the waste, and regulate the protein levels, so we know we are “fighting off something” when they are enlarged.

The lymph system has lymph fluid that is clear and colorless. It is made up of protein, water, cellular debris and fatty acids. Now imagine the lymph vessels as a stream, which runs in one direction. They have a one-way value only and this pushes the lymph in that direction. All streams run back toward the heart. So the bloodstream needs to be able to handle the load each day of the lymph cleaning system. The lymph fluid can be mobilized by massage, compression; the “muscle pump” which is why exercising is so important, external pressure, breathing patterns, etc.

If the lymph fluid builds up in the tissue and is not flushed each day, as it should be it could harden the surrounding tissue. It also loves to bind to the fatty tissue and then it is especially hard to mobilize. The skin integrity is then compromised due to too much fluid and breakdown of the tissues can occur and then the efficiency of the muscle pump decreases. The lymph vessels will dilate and the one-way values cease to function and the area becomes swollen. This can happen anytime there is any accumulation of swelling, whether from an injury, a bruise, a localized tendonitis or post-surgically. You do not want fluid that is ever stagnant, because that is where infection can brew.

When the body is functioning efficiently the lymph system will activate itself no problem. However, if nodes have been damaged or destroyed as with radiation or surgical lines that interrupt the lymph streams flow pattern, then the lymph system cannot handle the load and will shut down. We see fluid get backed up behind C-sections scar lines, and even edema from a total joint.

If this happens to you do not be dismayed. There are things you can do to mobilize the flow of protein rich fluid. The first thing to do some very basic things like drinking more water, up to eight glasses a day. Decreasing your sodium intake to below 1,800mg a day (the average American consumes 3,500mmg a day). Stop smoking because this slows the lymph system down and decreases tissue healing.

Make sure you are sleeping at least eight hours a night to ensure the body’s healing mechanisms. Then increase your leafy greens veggies, fruits and decrease all processed foods to a minimum.

Next seek the assistance of your physical therapist, which has been specifically educated in the care of the lymph system. Remember, the lymph system can be trained how to move fluid around areas of scarring. We also teach the system how to transport edema around an area that there is restriction with four specific steps.

The four steps include specific muscle pump strategies, compression techniques or kinsiotex taping, manual lymph drainage massage and meticulous skin care. The therapists who are trained in edema reduction know and use these steps to assist the lymph system in re-booting itself whether it is from an orthopedic, cancer or immune system related problem. Please know your therapists can get your lymph system back on track.

Sheree DiBiase is a licensed physical therapist and the owner of Lake City Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy in Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane Valley. She has been practicing outpatient physical therapy for more than 20 years and was an Adjunct Professor at Loma Linda University, School of Physical Therapy for seven years, she instructed in Applied Kinesiology, Biomechanics and Gait Analysis. Both of her offices provide care for cancer related fatigue, weakness and lymphedema. She can be reached at (208) 667-1988.