121 Lymphatic System Structure and Function

Structure of the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic vessels and associated lymphoid organs.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure and function of the lymphatic system 

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The lymphatic system is a circulatory system that drains fluid from the blood vessels.
  • Lymph vessels are the site of fluid drainage and pump lymph fluid using smooth muscle and skeletal muscle action. The larger vessels contain valves to prevent backflow and pump towards the heart to return lymph fluid to the bloodstream by the subclavian veins.
  • A lymph node is an organized collection of lymphoid tissue through which the lymph passes on its way to returning to the blood. Lymph nodes are located at intervals along the lymphatic system.
  • Lymphoid tissue contains lymphocytes and other specialized cells and tissues that have immune system functions.

Key Terms

  • lymph node: Small oval bodies of the lymphatic system, distributed along the lymphatic vessels clustered in the armpits, groin, neck, chest, and abdomen. They filter through lymph fluid.
  • lymph: A colorless, watery, bodily fluid carried by the lymphatic system, consisting mainly of white blood cells.

The lymphatic system is a collection of structures and vessels that drains lymph from blood and has several other functions. It is a circulatory system for lymph fluid and the site of many key immune system functions. 

Lymphatic Vessels

The lymphatic vessels are the lymphatic system equivalent of the blood vessels of the circulatory system and drain fluid from the circulatory system. The network of lymph vessels consists of the initial collectors of lymph fluid, which are small, valveless vessels, and goes on to form the precollector vessels, which have rudimentary valves that are not fully functional. These structures then form increasingly larger lymphatic vessels which form colaterals and have lymph-angions (lymph hearts).  The larger lymph vessels contain valves that prevent the backflow of lymph. 

The lymphatic system is an active pumping system driven by segments that have a function similar to peristalsis. They lack a central pump (like the heart in the cardio vascular system), so smooth muscle tissue contracts to move lymph along through the vessels. Skeletal muscle contractions also move lymph through the vessels. The lymphatic vessels make their way to the lymph nodes, and from there the vessels form into trunks. In general, the lymph vessels bring lymph fluid toward the heart and above it to the subclavian veins, which enable lymph fluid to re-enter the circulatory system through the vena cava.


The lymphatic system: This diagram shows the network of lymph nodes and connecting lymphatic vessels in the human body.

Lymphatic Tissues and Organs

Lymphoid tissue is found in many organs including the lymph nodes, as well as in the lymphoid follicles in the pharynx such as the tonsils. Lymph nodes are found primarily in the armpits, groin, chest, neck, and abdomen. Lymphoid tissues contain lymphocytes (a type of highly differentiated white blood cell), but they also contain other types of cells for structural and functional support, such as the dendritic cells, which play a key role in the immune system. The system also includes all the structures dedicated to the circulation and production of lymphocytes, including the spleen, thymus, and bone marrow.

Functions of the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system plays a prominent role in immune function, fatty acid absorption, and removal of interstitial fluid from tissues.

Learning Objectives

Describe the roles of the lymphatic system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The lymphatic system is a linear network of lymphatic vessels and secondary lymphoid organs. It is the site of many immune system functions as well as its own functions.
  • It is responsible for the removal of interstitial fluid from tissues into lymph fluid, which is filtered and brought back into the bloodstream through the subclavian veins near the heart. 
  • Edema accumulates in tissues during inflammation or when lymph drainage is impaired.
  • It absorbs and transports fatty acids and fats as chylomicrons from the digestive system.
  • It transports white blood cells and dendritic cells to lymph nodes where adaptive immune responses are often triggered.
  • Tumors can spread through lymphatic transport.

Key Terms

  • lacteal: A lymphatic capillary that absorbs dietary fats in the villi of the small intestine.
  • interstitial fluid: Also called tissue fluid, a solution that bathes and surrounds the cells of multicellular animals.
  • white blood cell: A type of blood cell involved with an immune response. Many white blood cells (primarily lymphocytes) are transported by the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is the site of many key immune system functions. It is important to distinguish that immune system functions can happen almost anywhere in the body, while the lymphatic system is its own system where many immune system functions take place. Besides immune system function, the lymphatic system has many functions of its own. It is responsible for the removal and filtration of interstitial fluid from tissues, absorbs and transports fatty acids and fats as chyle from the digestive system, and transports many of the cells involved in immune system function via lymph.

Removal of Fluid

Interstitial fluid accumulates in the tissues, generally as a result of the pressure exerted from capillaries (hydrostatic and osmotic pressure) or from protein leakage into the tissues (which occurs during inflammation). These conditions force fluid from the capillaries into the tissues. One of the main functions of the lymphatic system is to drain the excess interstitial fluid that accumulates.

The lymphatic system is a blunt-ended linear flow system, in which tissue fluids, cells, and large extracellular molecules, collectively called lymph, are drained into the initial lymphatic capillary vessels that begin at the interstitial spaces of tissues and organs. They are then transported to thicker collecting lymphatics, which are embedded with multiple lymph nodes, and are eventually returned to the blood circulation through the left and right subclavian veins and into the vena cava. They drain into venous circulation because there is lower blood pressure in veins, which minimizes the impact of lymph cycling on blood pressure. Lymph nodes located at junctions between the lymph vessels also filter the lymph fluid to remove pathogens and other abnormalities.

Fluid removal from tissues prevents the development of edema. Edema is any type of tissue swelling from increased flow of interstitial fluid into tissues relative to fluid drainage. While edema is a normal component of the inflammation process, in some cases it can be very harmful. Cerebral and pulmonary edema are especially problematic, which is why lymph drainage is so important. Abnormal edema can still occur if the drainage components of the lymph vessels are obstructed.

This diagram of the lymphatic system indicates the artery containing high pressure oxygenated blood, capillary, vein containing low pressure deoxygenated blood, large lymph vessel with valves, lymph node, lymph, lymph capillary, and cells. The process includes tissue fluid with oxygen and food passing out of capillaries, tissue fluid with cell waste products entering capillaries, and tissue fluid with cell waste products enters lymph vessels.

The lymphatic system: A diagram of fluid movement in the lymphatic system.

Fatty Acid Transport

The lymphatic system also facilitates fatty acid absorption from the digestive system. During fat digestion, fatty acids are digested, emulsified, and converted within intestinal cells into a lipoprotein called chylomicrons. Lymph drainage vessels that line the intestine, called lacteals, absorb the chylomicrons into lymph fluid. The lymph vessels then take the chylomicrons into blood circulation, where they react with HDL cholesterols and are then broken down in the liver.

Immune Cell Transport

In addition to tissue fluid homeostasis, the lymphatic system serves as a conduit for transport of cells involved in immune system function. Most notably, highly-specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes and antigen -presenting cells are transported to regional lymph nodes, where the immune system encounters pathogens, microbes, and other immune elicitors that are filtered from the lymph fluid. Much of the adaptive immune system response, which is mediated by dendritic cells, takes place in the lymph nodes. Lymphatic vessels, which uptake various antigens from peripheral tissues, are positively regulated by chemokines/cytokines secreted by various immune cells during inflammation. This allows antigens to enter lymph nodes, where dendritic cells can present them to lymphocytes to trigger an adaptive immune response.

While the lymphatic system is important for transporting immune cells, its transport capabilities can also provide a pathway for the spread of cancer. Lymph circulation is one of the main ways that tumors can spread to distant parts of the body, which is difficult to prevent.


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