Most of us have experienced ‘swollen glands’ at one time or another. But many people don’t understand what glands are, or what they do. Properly called lymph glands – or to be really accurate lymph nodes – the glands are part of a network of tiny vessels known as the lymphatic system.
What the lymphatic system is…
This system is rather like the system of blood vessels that supplies all parts of the body. However instead of blood, the lymph vessels carry a clear, straw-colored fluid – lymph. This fluid originates in the bloodstream and seeps through the walls of tiny blood vessels. It bathes and nourishes the body’s tissues. It collects in the lymphatic vessels and eventually returns to the bloodstream.
The lymphatic system serves as one of the body’s defenses against infection.
Along the lymph vessels are small bean-shaped lymph glands or ‘nodes’. You can probably feel some of your lymph nodes.
There are lymph nodes
- Under your arms, in your armpits
- In the groin area (at the top of your legs)
- In your neck
There are also lymph nodes that you cannot feel in
- Your abdomen
- Your pelvis
- Your chest
Other organs that are part of the lymphatic system are:
Spleen – The spleen is under your ribs on the left side of your body. Some important functions of the spleen are to produce white blood cells and the filtering of lymph fluid.
Thymus – The thymus is a small gland under your breast bone. The thymus helps to mature white blood cells. It is usually most active in teenagers and shrinks in adulthood.
Tonsils – The tonsils are two glands in the back of your throat. The tonsils and adenoids (also called the ‘nasopharyngeal’ tonsils) help to protect the entrance to the digestive system and the lungs from bacteria and viruses.
Adenoids – The adenoids are at the back of your nose, where it meets the back of your throat.
What the lymphatic system does
- to collect and return interstitial fluid, including plasma protein to the blood, and thus help maintain fluid balance,
- to defend the body against disease by producing lymphocytes,
- to absorb lipids from the intestine and transport them to the blood.
How does lymphatic system works
The lymph nodes (glands) are collections of tissue along the lymphatic vessels. They contain large numbers of cells called macrophages and lymphocytes. These cells act as scavengers, killing and removing harmful invaders such as bacteria and viruses.
When this happens the number of cells in the node increases rapidly. This may cause the node to swell, become tender and, sometimes, red.
The main areas where this is noticeable are the neck, groin and axilla (armpit). Thus an infected finger might result in swollen glands in the armpit on that side. The very obvious swollen glands in the neck of a child with tonsillitis are a common sight for many parents.
As well as dealing with infections, lymph glands also trap cancer cells, reducing their spread through the body.
Sometimes the lymphatic system itself is the primary target for cancer. A disease called Hodgkin’s disease is a common form of this type of cancer and shows up with persistent and quite hard swollen glands.
Swollen glands are common. If they ‘come and go’ there is usually nothing to worry about. But if glands remain enlarged for a week or more, with no obvious cause such as a local infection, ask your doctor to look at them, in case they are a sign of something more serious.
Diseases of the lymphatic system
Lymphedema is the swelling caused by the accumulation of lymph fluid, which may occur if the lymphatic system is damaged or has malformations.
An estimated 170 million people develop lymphedema, which progresses in three stages:
Stage 1: Pressing the swollen limb leaves a pit that takes a while to fill back in. Because there is little fibrosis (hardening) it is often reversible. Elevation reduces swelling.
Stage 2: Pressure does not leave a pit. Elevation does not help. If left untreated, the limb becomes fibrotic.
Stage 3: This stage of lymphedema is often called elephantiasis. It is generally only in the legs after lymphedema that has gone long untreated. While treatment can help a little, it is not reversible.
Some common causes of swollen lymph nodes include infections, infectious mononucleosis, and cancer, e.g. Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and metastasis of cancerous cells via the lymphatic system.
Lymphatic System, Exercise & Yoga
Most people take their lymphatic system for granted.
What “media/press” the lymphatic system does get often appears when it causes an unpleasant side effect called lymphedema – a potentially disabling condition that can sometimes arise following a mastectomy.
As per theory of Yoga “Lymphedema is not something you can cure, you have to manage it. Doing yoga every day helps undo the effects of sitting and standing for long periods of time.”
Doctors in exercise physiology, explains that any form of exercise that incorporates major muscle groups and deep breathing will encourage lymph flow.
Muscle movement squeezes lymph vessels. The fluid is then moved toward the subclavian veins near the heart. One-way valves in the lymph vessels prevent the fluid from moving backwards, away from the heart.
Deep breathing is especially beneficial because breathing muscles squeeze the lymphatic thoracic duct, which dumps most of the body’s lymph into the bloodstream.
One form of exercise that seems especially beneficial for the lymph movement is rebounding, which involves jumping or jogging on a mini-trampoline.
And, don’t forget that walking, plain and simple, is one of the best forms of exercise – that just about everyone can do.
What Can Reflexology Do for the Lymphatic System?
Well, I’ve long been a believer in the benefits of reflexology to the body and especially the lymphatic system.
While the only other organ system of the body with miles of vessels is the circulatory system, it’s advantage is the heart which acts as a pump to move it’s fluids throughout.
The lymphatic system has no such pump and relies largely upon muscle movement to keep things moving.
And the flow of the lymphatic system’s fluid does not move in a circle. As mentioned above, this system is comprised of “dead-end” or one-way vessels that rely on tiny “flap valves” (on the inside of the vessel), to keep the flow of lymph moving only one-way – towards the heart.
There is no pump anywhere in the lymph system, and the fingers and toes are the furthest distances for the fluid to flow back to the heart.
However, it’s inherent in our gently thumb and finger walking compression to support all the fluid tides, including the lymph.
I say inherent, because the focus of reflexology is not to move fluids, it’s just another fringe benefit of our techniques.
Imagine what a great help this would be to anybody, and especially to a body that’s involved in working on its own system defense.
As a reflexologist, I will always be careful not to treat, diagnose or prescribe. And, if someone is ill and they have not seen a doctor, make sure they are referred to a medical practitioner.
When a client has a lot of sensitivity at any of the immune system reflexes – the spleen, the thymus, the axillary lymph or the groin lymph reflex points – I might ask them how they’ve been feeling and if they’ve recently experienced any seasonal colds or flu’s.
That’s such a great and general question because it will get the conversation started based of what they tell you and not what you tell them (which would be a diagnosis).
Conversation or not, I’ll still detail the reflexes to the specific area of sensitivity (but within the client’s pain threshold) and will almost always include detailing on all the lymphatic system reflexes.
Remember, the lymphatic system is a large part of the immune system and maintaining both is optimum for health and well-being.
And, yes, I believe that reflexology profoundly supports not just the lymphatic system, but all the organs and systems of the body.
Again, be curious about where the body is “calling for energy”, and know that reflexology will support the body in its own healing processes – the never ending impulse towards homeostasis.
Reflexology offers the whole body relaxation, and the effects of our work can be helpful on so many levels.