No, I’m not talking about your alimentary canal.
When your doctor (or Doctor Mom) checks to see if your “glands” are swollen, it is your lymph nodes that are being checked—and they are not glands.
The lymph nodes, located throughout your body, are part of a lymphatics circulatory system which runs in parallel and in collaboration with your venous blood system, as distinct from your arterial blood system.
But, when the lymphatics system doesn’t work properly, bad things can happen—the sewer backs up. The result is a swelling of various tissues, a condition most commonly called lymphodema. There are other names for more serious problems associated with the dysfunction of the lymphatics system..
I was reminded of all this, having remembered about “lymph” only vaguely from my biology classes in high school, by my friend Helena Janlöv-Remnerud. Helena is a trained nurse, entrepreneur, teacher and authority in lymphodema therapy. Because we have a mutual friend in the USA, we met several years ago and found we had interests in common.
What is lymphodema, and why does a person need therapy for this condition?
The simplest way to describe lymphodema (or, more scientifically, lymphodoema) is an abnormal swelling of the limbs and other parts of the body. The most extreme example of this condition outside of a hospital will be the person whose legs seem like those of an elephant, hence the term elephantiasis, used in unusually serious cases where parasitic worms have invaded the lymphatics system, a disease usually found in the tropics.
Most commonly in the temperate zones, lymphodema is the result of acute trauma to the body, including deep surgical operations such as for cancer, and due to the effects other diseases such as diabetes.
Helena has had, for a number of years, her own lymphodema clinic in central Stockholm and is currently preparing for a move to a larger, multi-specialty clinic near a major medical center just north of the city center: Olivia Rehabilitering.
In helping this layman understand her metaphor, Helena told me:
The lymphatic fluid takes all the waste products away from your tissues. As it moves toward its final destination in the blood stream, it passes through the analysis stations of the lymph nodes where bacteria and other harmful micro-organisms are detected. An alarm goes off in the lymph nodes that signals the production of warriors to attack them. The residue will be taken care of by the cleansing processes of the bloodstream: the liver, the kidneys and the spleen. All the output of the lymphatic system is poured into the venous blood system at two large veins under your collar bones, the subclavian veins. As the blood passes through the kidneys some waste products are done away with through bladder and the urine. When the blood passes through the liver other waste (like toxins) is discarded of through the bowel. The spleen mainly takes care of old erythrocytes (red blood cells); it also part of the immune system.
Helena recently delivered a paper to Svenska Ödemförbundet (Swedish Edema Association) on lymphoedema assessment and management in Flinders Medical Centre in New South Wales, Austrlia.
What I hope to leave you with is an appreciation for a seldom mentioned system of your body that deserves equal billing with your blood system.
Ask your doctor about it.