Lymphatic System

Image Caption : Lymphatic System of Mother and Human Fetus: 3D visualization reconstructed from scanned human data of lymphatic and immune systems of mother and fetus. A fetus is protected by the mother's immune system. At birth a mix of generically designed lymphocytes and immune proteins (antibodies) passes from the mother's blood temporarily enabling newborns to resist harmful agents that they haven't encountered before. Temporary or passive immunities are also present in mother's milk and can be imparted through nursing.

Functions of the Lymphatic System

A major function of the lymphatic system is to drain body fluids and return them to the bloodstream. Blood pressure causes leakage of fluid from the capillaries, resulting in the accumulation of fluid in the interstitial space-that is, spaces between individual cells in the tissues. In humans, 20 liters of plasma is released into the interstitial space of the tissues each day due to capillary filtration. Once this filtrate is out of the bloodstream and in the tissue spaces, it is referred to as interstitial fluid. Of this, 17 liters is reabsorbed directly by the blood vessels. But what happens to the remaining three liters? This is where the lymphatic system comes into play. It drains the excess fluid and empties it back into the bloodstream via a series of vessels, trunks, and ducts. Lymph is the term used to describe interstitial fluid once it has entered the lymphatic system. When the lymphatic system is damaged in some way, such as by being blocked by cancer cells or destroyed by injury, protein-rich interstitial fluid accumulates (sometimes "backs up" from the lymph vessels) in the tissue spaces. This inappropriate accumulation of fluid referred to as lymphedema may lead to serious medical consequences.

As the vertebrate immune system evolved, the network of lymphatic vessels became convenient avenues for transporting the cells of the immune system. Additionally, the transport of dietary lipids and fat-soluble vitamins absorbed in the gut uses this system.

Cells of the immune system not only use lymphatic vessels to make their way from interstitial spaces back into the circulation, but they also use lymph nodes as major staging areas for the development of critical immune responses. A lymph node is one of the small, bean-shaped organs located throughout the lymphatic system.

Structure of the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic vessels begin as open-ended capillaries, which feed into larger and larger lymphatic vessels, and eventually empty into the bloodstream by a series of ducts. Along the way, the lymph travels through the lymph nodes, which are commonly found near the groin, armpits, neck, chest, and abdomen. Humans have about 500-600 lymph nodes throughout the body (Figure).

Anatomy of the Lymphatic System

The left panel shows a female human body, and the entire lymphatic system is shown. The right panel shows magnified images of the thymus and the lymph node. All the major parts in the lymphatic system are labeled.

Lymphatic vessels in the arms and legs convey lymph to the larger lymphatic vessels in the torso.

A major distinction between the lymphatic and cardiovascular systems in humans is that lymph is not actively pumped by the heart, but is forced through the vessels by the movements of the body, the contraction of skeletal muscles during body movements, and breathing. One-way valves (semi-lunar valves) in lymphatic vessels keep the lymph moving toward the heart. Lymph flows from the lymphatic capillaries, through lymphatic vessels, and then is dumped into the circulatory system via the lymphatic ducts located at the junction of the jugular and subclavian veins in the neck.

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The lymphatic system consists of a fluid (lymph), vessels that transport the lymph, and organs that contain lymphoid tissue.


Lymph is a fluid similar in composition to blood plasma. It is derived from blood plasma as fluids pass through capillary walls at the arterial end. As the interstitial fluid begins to accumulate, it is picked up and removed by tiny lymphatic vessels and returned to the blood. As soon as the interstitial fluid enters the lymph capillaries, it is called lymph. Returning the fluid to the blood prevents edema and helps to maintain normal blood volume and pressure.


Lymphatic vessels, unlike blood vessels, only carry fluid away from the tissues. The smallest lymphatic vessels are the lymph capillaries, which begin in the tissue spaces as blind-ended sacs. Lymph capillaries are found in all regions of the body except the bone marrow, central nervous system, and tissues, such as the epidermis, that lack blood vessels. The wall of the lymph capillary is composed of endothelium in which the simple squamous cells overlap to form a simple one-way valve. This arrangement permits fluid to enter the capillary but prevents lymph from leaving the vessel.

Illustration of lymphatic capillaries in the tissue spaces

The microscopic lymph capillaries merge to form lymphatic vessels. Small lymphatic vessels join to form larger tributaries, called lymphatic trunks, which drain large regions. Lymphatic trunks merge until the lymph enters the two lymphatic ducts. The right lymphatic duct drains lymph from the upper right quadrant of the body. The thoracic duct drains all the rest.

Like veins, the lymphatic tributaries have thin walls and have valves to prevent backflow of blood. There is no pump in the lymphatic system like the heart in the cardiovascular system. The pressure gradients to move lymph through the vessels come from the skeletal muscle action, respiratory movement, and contraction of smooth muscle in vessel walls.


Lymphatic organs are characterized by clusters of lymphocytes and other cells, such as macrophages, enmeshed in a framework of short, branching connective tissue fibers. The lymphocytes originate in the red bone marrow with other types of blood cells and are carried in the blood from the bone marrow to the lymphatic organs. When the body is exposed to microorganisms and other foreign substances, the lymphocytes proliferate within the lymphatic organs and are sent in the blood to the site of the invasion. This is part of the immune response that attempts to destroy the invading agent.

The lymphatic organs include:

  • Lymph Nodes
  • Tonsils
  • Spleen
  • Thymus


The major components of the lymphatic system are lymphatic vessels, lymph, lymph nodes, and some other lymphatic organs.

Illustration of the lymphatic system

Lymphatic vessels carry lymph, a colorless liquid, throughout the body. Along lymph vessels are small bean-shaped glandular nodules called lymph nodes.

  • Other lymphatic organs are:Tonsil: clusters of lymphatic tissues just under the mucous membranes that line the nose, mouth, and pharynx.
  • Spleen: it is similar to a lymph node in shape and structure but it is much larger.
  • Thymus: a soft organ with two lobes that is located anterior to the ascending aorta and posterior to the sternum.
  • Peyer patch: lymphoid tissue on the visceral surface of the small intestine.

National Cancer Institute / NIH

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and a vital part of the immune system, comprising a network of lymphatic vessels that carry a clear fluid called lymph (from Latin, lympha meaning water) directionally towards the heart. The lymphatic system was first described in the seventeenth century independently by Olaus Rudbeck and Thomas Bartholin. Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is not a closed system. The human circulatory system processes an average of 20 liters of blood per day through capillary filtration, which removes plasma while leaving the blood cells. Roughly 17 litres of the filtered plasma are reabsorbed directly into the blood vessels, while the remaining three litres remain in the interstitial fluid. One of the main functions of the lymph system is to provide an accessory return route to the blood for the surplus three litres.

The other main function is that of defense in the immune system. Lymph is very similar to blood plasma: it contains lymphocytes and other white blood cells. It also contains waste products and cellular debris together with bacteria and proteins. Associated organs composed of lymphoid tissue are the sites of lymphocyte production. Lymphocytes are concentrated in the lymph nodes. The spleen and the thymus are also lymphoid organs of the immune system. The tonsils are lymphoid organs that are also associated with the digestive system. Lymphoid tissues contain lymphocytes, and also contain other types of cells for support. The system also includes all the structures dedicated to the circulation and production of lymphocytes (the primary cellular component of lymph), which also includes the bone marrow, and the lymphoid tissue associated with the digestive system.

The blood does not come into direct contact with the parenchymal cells and tissues in the body (except in case of an injury causing rupture of one or more blood vessels), but constituents of the blood first exit the microvascular exchange blood vessels to become interstitial fluid, which comes into contact with the parenchymal cells of the body. Lymph is the fluid that is formed when interstitial fluid enters the initial lymphatic vessels of the lymphatic system. The lymph is then moved along the lymphatic vessel network by either intrinsic contractions of the lymphatic passages or by extrinsic compression of the lymphatic vessels via external tissue forces (e.g., the contractions of skeletal muscles), or by lymph hearts in some animals. The organization of lymph nodes and drainage follows the organization of the body into external and internal regions; therefore, the lymphatic drainage of the head, limbs, and body cavity walls follows an external route, and the lymphatic drainage of the thorax, abdomen, and pelvic cavities follows an internal route. Eventually, the lymph vessels empty into the lymphatic ducts, which drain into one of the two subclavian veins, near their junction with the internal jugular veins.

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