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Components of the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system consists of a fluid (lymph), vessels that transport the lymph, and organs that contain lymphoid tissue.

Lymph

Lymph is a fluid similar in composition to blood plasma. It is derived from blood plasma as fluids pass through capillary walls at the arterial end. As the interstitial fluid begins to accumulate, it is picked up and removed by tiny lymphatic vessels and returned to the blood. As soon as the interstitial fluid enters the lymph capillaries, it is called lymph. Returning the fluid to the blood prevents edema and helps to maintain normal blood volume and pressure.

Lymphatic Vessels

Lymphatic vessels, unlike blood vessels, only carry fluid away from the tissues. The smallest lymphatic vessels are the lymph capillaries, which begin in the tissue spaces as blind-ended sacs. Lymph capillaries are found in all regions of the body except the bone marrow, central nervous system, and tissues, such as the epidermis, that lack blood vessels. The wall of the lymph capillary is composed of endothelium in which the simple squamous cells overlap to form a simple one-way valve. This arrangement permits fluid to enter the capillary but prevents lymph from leaving the vessel.

Illustration of lymphatic capillaries in the tissue spaces

The microscopic lymph capillaries merge to form lymphatic vessels. Small lymphatic vessels join to form larger tributaries, called lymphatic trunks, which drain large regions. Lymphatic trunks merge until the lymph enters the two lymphatic ducts. The right lymphatic duct drains lymph from the upper right quadrant of the body. The thoracic duct drains all the rest.

Like veins, the lymphatic tributaries have thin walls and have valves to prevent backflow of blood. There is no pump in the lymphatic system like the heart in the cardiovascular system. The pressure gradients to move lymph through the vessels come from the skeletal muscle action, respiratory movement, and contraction of smooth muscle in vessel walls.

Lymphatic Organs

Lymphatic organs are characterized by clusters of lymphocytes and other cells, such as macrophages, enmeshed in a framework of short, branching connective tissue fibers. The lymphocytes originate in the red bone marrow with other types of blood cells and are carried in the blood from the bone marrow to the lymphatic organs. When the body is exposed to microorganisms and other foreign substances, the lymphocytes proliferate within the lymphatic organs and are sent in the blood to the site of the invasion. This is part of the immune response that attempts to destroy the invading agent.

The lymphatic organs include: