Almost everyone has heard of lymph nodes. Not many people know much about them. What is the lymph system, and what is its job?
The lymph or lymphatic system, which is made up of a clear fluid called lymph, lymph vessels and lymph nodes (which are located throughout your body), transports excess fluid and proteins from your tissues back to your bloodstream at the same time that it works to protect you from disease and illness. Drinking plenty of water every day helps your lymphatic system.
Lymph fluid fills the spaces between your cells, which means it is distributed throughout your body, in your tissues. This fluid flows thanks to the contractions of your muscles and the act of breathing.
As a result, especially when you exercise regularly and breathe deeply, your lymph system does its job better, which helps promote your overall good health. In part, that happens as your lymph nodes filter out viruses, bacteria, fats, waste, and certain chemicals and proteins, which are destroyed by special cells called macrophages. Basically, that process reflects your immune system in action.
You may have noticed some swelling around the area of an injury, or in your legs when you stand for an unaccustomed long time. The swelling is named edema. It is a signal that, at least temporarily, your lymph system is overloaded and cannot carry away the unwanted substances. Often, like the gradual subsiding of pooled rain around a storm drain, the swelling eventually goes away. That’s your lymph system at work.
Lymphedema is a condition in which the lymph system’s ability to get rid of fluid is compromised by damage, trauma or surgery. So the fluid, having a reduced means for moving on, stagnates. Proteins in the fluid build up, forcing the area (usually involving an arm or leg, but it can occur anywhere) to enlarge. Swelling decreases the process of oxygenation and the work of the cells there. Now bacteria can accumulate, increasing the chances of infection. The tissue can become hard and thick under the skin.
There are two main types of lymphedema: Primary or congenital, and secondary. The former type, which more often occurs in females, typically affects a single limb where the lymph vessels are not up to the job of carrying the lymph fluid. This condition can appear at birth or at any later time.
The latter type, secondary lymphedema, can result from surgery or radiation or chemotherapy treatments, by accident, from repeated infections and from parasites, among other causes that damage the lymph system.
Not everyone with a compromised lymph system will get lymphedema, but everyone with a compromised lymph system will always be at risk for developing lymphedema. Even a seemingly small occurrence such as a sunburn or bee sting can bring it on in a person at risk. Obesity, very tight clothing, repeated trauma to a particular part of your body, and straining to handle heavy objects, among other causes, can contribute to the development of lymphedema in a person with a damaged lymph system.
No clear understanding exists for all of the causes of this condition. Once a person develops lymphedema it cannot be cured. But when it is attended to properly, especially in the early stages, lymphedema can be managed, and your quality of life can be well protected.
Lymphedema may be severe or rather light and passing. Either way, the condition involves a vital part of your body’s functioning, and always merits your awareness and the attention of your doctor.