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To fully understand lymphoedema, it helps to know a bit about the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is made up of groups of lymph nodes throughout the body, which are connected by a network of lymph vessels.
The lymphatic system:
The lymphatic system
View a large version of the image of the lymphatic system|
This is the liquid that flows through the lymph vessels and the lymph nodes. It forms when excess liquid, from the fluid that surrounds all our body tissues, drains into small lymph vessels.
Lymph vessels are a network of tubes that go all over the body. Some are tiny channels just under the skin, which can be easily damaged if the skin is broken. Small lymph vessels join together to form larger lymph vessels, which pass through lymph nodes. The fluid then travels through larger lymph tubes and drains into the bloodstream.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, but mainly in the neck, armpits, groin and tummy (abdomen). They’re made of tissue that contains special cells that help fight infection and disease such as cancer.
Lymph nodes vary in size; some are as small as a pinhead and others are about the size of a baked bean. The number of lymph nodes in the body varies from person to person.
Different parts of the body have different numbers of nodes; for example, there are about 15-30 small nodes in the armpit.
Lymph fluid flows through the lymph nodes, which act as a filter destroying or trapping anything harmful that the body doesn’t need. This includes bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells.
Lymph nodes contain white blood cells (lymphocytes), which attack and break down bacteria or other harmful cells. Waste products and the destroyed bacteria are then carried in the lymph fluid into the bloodstream and are disposed of with other body waste.
Sometimes, the lymph nodes trap bacteria or viruses that they can’t destroy immediately. The lymph nodes then swell and become tender and sore to touch. This is usually the sign of an infection that may need treatment with antibiotics.
Sometimes, cancer cells spread into the lymph nodes from a cancer in another part of the body. It’s also possible for a cancer to start in the lymph nodes themselves (lymphomas). If this happens, the lymph nodes become swollen but are usually painless.
There are different causes of swollen lymph nodes, but if you develop a painless, swollen lymph node it’s important to have it checked by your GP.
Content last reviewed: 1 March 2013
Next planned review: 2015
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