III. Lymphatic system
Definition of the lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is a complex network of vessels and lymph nodes whose function is to fight infections. During an infection, the immune system activates and the lymphatic system plays a role in transporting and storing cells that will fight the infection. The lymphatic system is conceptually more complex than the cardiovascular system or the digestive system. However, we can become aware of it during a sore throat or an infection since we can sometimes feel the lymph nodes in the neck, which become sensitive and more voluminous.
Function of the lymphatic system
A transparent fluid circulates in the lymphatic system (the lymph) and transports lymphocytes, which are the “little soldiers” of the immune system. In addition to carrying this type of white blood cell, it also carries antibodies and nutrients. Once the lymph has reached the infected tissues, the fluid is reabsorbed into the lymphatic system for later use.
Failure of the lymphatic system
Sometimes, when the lymphatic system is failing, a medical condition called lymphedema is diagnosed. Lymphedema is a swelling caused by the abnormal lymph accumulation in one part of the body.
There are two types of lymphedema:
- Primary lymphedema: already present at birth (congenital) or appears later, often for unknown reasons. This form of lymphedema is rather rare.
- Secondary lymphedema: this is by far the most common form and can be divided into benign and malignant causes
- Following radiotherapy treatment for cancer
- Following an infection
- Cancerous tumor that blocks the lymphatic system
A classic example of lymphedema is the appearance of swelling in the arm following surgery for breast cancer.
In addition to swelling of one part of the body, other symptoms may occur:
- Feeling of heaviness
- Decreased flexibility
- Feeling that one’s clothes are too tight
Lymphedema is a chronic disease that fortunately can be controlled.
Treating the lymphatic system
Treatments help control symptoms and avoid complications such as infections (e.g. cellulitis, a severe skin infection) and wound formation.
The treatment is done in two steps:
- Step 1: use of a multilayer bandage to minimize swelling as much as possible. A mass technique called lymphatic drainage is also one of the treatment options.
- Step 2: Once swelling has been minimized, treatment should be continued by wearing a compression garment. This garment must be worn over the long term. Consult the RAMQ website to see conditions of reimbursement (LINK).
You can reduce the risk of developing lymphedema by following these recommendations:
- Engage in regular physical activity
- Avoid becoming overweight
- Reduce compression on your limbs by avoiding shoulder bags, clothing and jewelry that are too tight. Avoid crossing your legs.
Do not hesitate to discuss your condition and the associated preventive measures or treatments with your healthcare professional.