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Introduction to the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system has three primary functions. First of all, it returns excess interstitial fluid to the blood. Of the fluid that leaves the capillary, about 90 percent is returned. The 10 percent that does not return becomes part of the interstitial fluid that surrounds the tissue cells. Small protein molecules may "leak" through the capillary wall and increase the osmotic pressure of the interstitial fluid. This further inhibits the return of fluid into the capillaries, and fluid tends to accumulate in the tissue spaces. If this continues, blood volume and blood pressure decrease significantly and the volume of tissue fluid increases, which results in edema (swelling). Lymph capillaries pick up the excess interstitial fluid and proteins and return them to the venous blood. After the fluid enters the lymph capillaries, it is called lymph.

The second function of the lymphatic system is the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive system and the subsequent transport of these substances to the venous circulation. The mucosa that lines the small intestine is covered with fingerlike projections called villi. There are blood capillaries and special lymph capillaries, called lacteals, in the center of each villus. The blood capillaries absorb most nutrients, but the fats and fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the lacteals. The lymph in the lacteals has a milky appearance due to its high fat content and is called chyle.

The third and probably most well known function of the lymphatic system is defense against invading microorganisms and disease. Lymph nodes and other lymphatic organs filter the lymph to remove microorganisms and other foreign particles. Lymphatic organs contain lymphocytes that destroy invading organisms.