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How I Would Explain our Lymphatic System
By Ken L. Smith, BHF

e all are relatively familiar with our blood circulatory system. The heart,   arteries, veins and blood are known from early childhood. More informed   persons are aware of capillaries, red and white blood cells, and the   involvement of the liver, kidneys and lungs. But are you aware of our OTHER   circulatory system? It is equally important to the healthful functioning of our body.

I am talking about our lymphatic system. It has many duties that mostly go   unnoticed by us. It is located just below the surface of our skin and deep within our body. It consists of lymph glands (also referred to as lymph nodes), lymphatic vessels (similar to veins), and the lymphatic fluid itself. We also have lymphatic capillary networks that collect lymph from the intercellular fluid. In "English", what that means is that the lymphatic fluids are able to move about the body in either of two ways: through the lymphatic vessels, and by more or less moving freely between cells, gathering together at the nearest lymphatic capillary plexus). The thymus, spleen and tonsils are also parts of this system.

Why we have this system:
The purpose of the lymphatic system is to carry away bacteria, toxins, and general waste products from the cells. The lymphatic nodes serve as filters to remove much of these contaminants. They flush THEIR product into the blood stream, where the rest of the body will either deal with it or secrete it. The system also maintains some fluid levels in the body, transports fats, proteins and other substances to the blood system, and produces various blood cells. It does a general cleanup of the body.

We have a heart that moves blood through its respective system, but we have no such organ in our lymphatic system. Lymphatic fluids must rely on breathing, muscular contractions, and movement of organs surrounding lymphatic vessels to move the fluids to their destination. Adding to this complicated task, the fluids must come from all parts of the body to the neck area where they enter the blood stream. Two lymphatic vessels (thoracic duct and right lymph duct) enter the brachiocephalic veins on each side of the neck.

There is belief that the build-up of cellular wastes and toxins may be causative in various maladies and diseases, including breast cancer. If this is true, the quality of our lymphatic system could affect our health. It would be very beneficial to remove restrictions and do what we can to improve the movement of the lymphatic fluid toward its destination in the neck area.

How do we help the system:
I mentioned that muscle and organ movement does a lot of the work of circulating the fluid. Do you exercise? Even walking would help here. Every time you take a step, think about the fluid in the feet that is being moved up through a series of vessels, slowly stepping up through small valves. This is similar to how blood moves up in your veins. Think about the fluid doing that all the way up to the neck. Do I need to remind you that Mr. Gravity is fighting against you?

That will help the feet, legs, and trunk, but how about the arms? You may want to get them moving too. Swing them, pump them, put weights in your hands and work those arms. Do not forget to make those hands work… any place that the lymphatic fluid can gather and not be influenced by a positive flowing action, will need some help. Fluid from the legs moves up through the abdomen inside the lymphatic vessels. The upper body will not gain much help from lower body exercise. You must provide movement to the upper body parts too.

Natural movement of the breasts will help provide the positive flow of lymphatic fluid through them. Breasts are not rigid fixtures... all women (and many men) are aware of breast movement.

How we hinder the function of this system:
We often do things that prevent this natural process from functioning. Slip a rubber band over your forearm that just barely depresses your skin. In about thirty minutes, move it over and you will see a red welt that is depressed into your skin, all the way around your arm. While that band was on your arm (and while that welt continues to be depressed into your skin), the movement of the fluid in your arm was compromised. That is why we used to be told to put a restriction similar to this one onto an arm or leg if we had received a snakebite. It restricted the lymph from carrying the poison from the snake to our heart and (hopefully) bought us some extra time to get to the doctor. Today, they have newer ideas about first aid for snakebites. Also, we now know that the lymph must go all the way up to the neck before it makes it to the heart.

You may notice that the welt from that rubber band will remain for a long time. It may stay for hours. This demonstrates how easily we compromise our lymphatic system. We firmly tie on our shoes to prevent blisters and to stabilize our ankles before we go out to run or walk. Is that fluid still flowing up from the foot? How about those socks (and I'm not talkin' baseball)? When you get back from your run, do those favorite running socks (that stay up forever) leave a welt around your leg when they come off?

Legs are usually not affected, unless you wear a pair of shoes that have the laces twisting up your calf, or your briefs have tight elastic in the leg openings. Speaking of briefs, how about the waist band? Or, a belt? Or, an athletic supporter (jock strap)? These each may be making an effect. Some lymphatic flow will be deep inside the limb or body and will be unaffected, but surface flow will be affected.

This site is talking about breast care and breast cancer. How are they affected by all of this? Well, let's find out. Go change your clothes and get comfortable. Take that bra off and look in a mirror (one that allows you to see your sides and your back). Do you see any welts? If you do, does it feel good to be rubbed where the welts are, and any other place where the bra was putting pressure on your skin? Now, you tell me: Is that bra affecting the circulation of the lymphatic fluid under that bra?

How Can We Help The Breast Area?
To encourage the lymphatic fluid to flow from the breasts, there must be some movement. Modern bras are designed to control breast movement, since that is considered by some in our society as undesirable. If you want to allow more breast movement with the idea that it may help lymphatic circulation, there are a number of things that people have done to accomplish that. If society objects to breast movement, allow movement when society is not around. Bras are not required when you sleep. If the unsupported weight of the breasts is uncomfortable, many women indicate that that condition will get better with time. Others wear something that is less confining than a bra, but still provides some lift.

What do you wear on a Saturday when it is raining and you curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book? Society will not be involved here. After work, when you get home and change into your "at-home" things, you are no longer dealing with the restrictive codes that many businesses or bosses may impose on what you wear. Even at work, a simple camisole may provide enough control. Breast size and density may determine that.

Sometimes, WE are the ones that have placed those restrictions upon ourselves. Our background may attach major restrictions upon our choices of what we wear (and do not wear). Just remember that bras did not exist before the (previous) turn of the century. Keep reading literature on the effects of wearing constrictive clothing. Some research is being done on this, and much more is needed. When more information is available, you might change your mind.

If improving natural lymphatic circulation is not an option for you, Robin C.Myers and Dr. Howard Sanford offer massage techniques that might make up for it. This is something that we can do for ourselves, or a couple can do together.

Surgery Procedures That Mess Up A Good Thing:
The tonsils play a part in the lymphatic system, and we routinely remove them when we are children. Perhaps we should re-evaluate that practice. Another compromise that happens is when a doctor does a biopsy of the axillary nodes. If a breast lump has proven to be malignant, the first question that comes up is "has the cancer metastasized (spread)?" A biopsy of the axillary lymph nodes (under the arm pit) will be performed and ten to twenty nodes will be removed to be tested. If any cancer cells have started to spread, these nodes should contain some of them. If the biopsy is positive (cancer cells are present) chemo therapy will most likely be indicated.

The disturbing part about this biopsy is that those nodes, even if they were NOT positive, will never be able to be returned to their rightful place, and the lymphatic drainage system has been compromised for the rest of the patient's life. Poor drainage can cause lymphedema, or swelling of the arm, for years to come. A new process, called Sentinel Node Biopsy is being done, and it can help with this problem. We talk about it in the Breast Cancer/Treatments section of this site.