When you hear the phrase "Human Anatomy" what do you think of? Bones, muscles, organs...maybe arteries and veins? Have you heard about the lymphatic system? Often overlooked, this system is important to remove excess fluid and byproducts from our blood vessels, transport chyle (nutrient rich fluid from the digestive system carrying fat and protein), as well as act as a line of defence from pathogens in the body.
Much like the arterial and venous pathways, the lymphatics are a system of vessels and nodes that run throughout the body, but instead of containing blood they contain a fluid called "lymph". Lymph is an interstitial fluid which means it is found between the tissues and cells of the body. Its key component is white blood cells (to fight against unwanted pathogens) but is also composed of minerals and the fluid we absorb from the digestive system (chyle). The vessels run along the sides of arteries and contain nodes, small circular sacs that house a high density of immune cells.
Unlike the arterial system which has a strong pump (the heart) to propel the fluid through the body, the lymphatic system is low pressure. This means it is very easy for the fluid to stagnate and "get stuck" in tissues. In order for the fluid to continue to flow, especially against gravity, a couple of mechanisms are in place. The lymphatic vessels "buddy up" and surround the arteries and utilize their pulsating motion, nearby skeletal muscular contractions compress and relax around the vessels, changes in pressure gradients diaphragmatic movements due to respiration allow fluid to move from areas of high pressure to low pressure, and Lastly, the lymphatic vessels contain a very thin layer of smooth muscle which can contract.
Our body is organized and structured in a certain way for a reason, every form has its function. So why do the largest clusters of lymph nodes exist in areas that bend and fold in the body? These are areas where lots of movement takes place. For example, the inguinal nodes are located at the hip crease, when we walk there is a massaging action on the nodes in this area as the thigh and pelvis move in relation to each other. Other key areas include the the popliteal fossa (back of knee), cubital fossa (elbow), axilla (armpit), as well as the head and neck. Picture the nodes in these regions as being mini turkey basters- one squeeze sucks the fluid up, and the next squeeze releases and propels the fluid, thus providing the lymphatic fluid with force to travel through the body.
When the lymph fluid stagnates in tissues the symptom of edema or swelling occurs, which can therefore cause pain, discomfort, and the feeling of heaviness in an area. How can we prevent or minimize this stagnation? The key is whole body movement that is also rhythmic.
A morning routine that focuses on moving all the major joints in your body can help you kickstart your lymph movement as well. For example- arm circles, swinging the arms back and forth across the chest, as well as up and down encourages lymph to move from the upper extremities to the chest wall where it drains back into the heart. Bending the knees, squatting, and swinging the legs encourage movement of the lymph up the lower extremities, into the thoracic duct and into the chest. Additionally, since the cisterna chyli (a very large node and convergence point of lower body lymph vessels) is located just inferior to the abdominal diaphragms and the thoracic duct passes through it taking deep breathes can encourage flow as well. These motions encourage a continuous flow of lymph throughout the body to keep the body healthy and functioning optimally.
Try this routine:
1) Backward Arm Circles
2) Forward Arm Circles
3) Swing Arms Back and Forth Across Chest
4) Lateral Arm Raises Above Head
5) Light jumping or squats
6) Leg Kicks (front/back)
7) Leg Swings (left to right)
8) Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing