The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
The lymphatic system is a crucial part of your body's ability to fight off infection and viruses. It's a key player in the immune system that functions by circulating lymphatic fluid through a series of lymph vessels all throughout your body. This fluid gathers up anything foreign, such as viruses and bacteria from your body tissues and flushes them to your lymph nodes, where immune cells attack whatever isn't helping your body.
Mental Floss spoke to Adriana Medina, an internal medicine doctor with a specialty in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, about these important tissues.
1. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF NODES.
They're about size and shape of a pea, and hundreds of them are scattered all throughout the body. In order to fight many little pathogens and clear out unhelpful debris, your body needs a lot of nodes to rally to these causes, according to Medina.
2. LYMPH NODES ARE HOME TO IMPORTANT IMMUNE CELLS.
"The lymph nodes are in charge of harboring lymphocytes," says Medina. Your body makes two main types of these immune cells, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes (or B- and T-cells), which are crucial to your body's ability to fight off infections of all kinds. There are many sub-classes of the T-cells because "they are very important to attack infection," says Medina.
3. LYMPHOCYTES ESCORT FOREIGN INVADERS OUT.
When your lymph nodes receive some sort of foreign debris they recognize isn't ours, Medina says, "the B-lymphocytes are in charge of making antibodies." These antibodies "leave with the toxic substance," and signal other immune cells to come in and attack the cells.
4. WHERE DO ALL THE TOXINS GO?
Once the lymphatic fluid has grabbed up its targets, most of it returns to your blood stream, Medina explains, which is why it's so important for lymph cells to do their job: kill what aims to harm you before it gets flushed back into your system.
5. THERE ARE MANY CAUSES OF SWOLLEN LYMPH NODES.
When your immune system senses a foreign invader, be it a virus, bacteria, vaccine, or even some medications, it preps the lymph nodes to make antibodies and lymphocytes to fight off the offender. This also increases the amount of lymphatic fluid in the node, which can make it swollen and tender. Most of the time swollen lymph nodes are not a big cause for concern.
6. A HARD, RUBBERY LYMPH NODE IS A PROBLEM.
A lymph node that is harder rather than soft and persists for several weeks is worth a doctor visit. While lymph nodes can be tender or swollen and mobile when infected, "when there is a [cancerous] malignance…they're hard, rubbery, they don't move, and they don't go away. The lymph nodes are always telling us something."
7. YOU ARE THE PUMP FOR YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM.
Unlike your blood, which has the heart to pump it through your body, your lymphatic fluid doesn't have a pump. Instead, it relies upon gravity and pressure, which you create when you move around, as well as light massage.
8. WHERE YOU FIND VEINS, YOU FIND LYMPHATIC VESSELS.
The lymphatic system and the circulatory system are separate systems, but connected, running in tandem like underground networks of streams. "Lymphatic vessels are distributed along the body wherever we have arteries [or] veins," says Medina.
9. YOUR LYMPH NODES AND YOUR SPLEEN WORK TOGETHER.
"The spleen is like one big lymph node," Medina says of the organ that lives between your stomach and diaphragm. "The spleen is able to produce additional blood cells in case we need it to." Additionally, she explains, many toxic substances are filtrated through the spleen. However, if something happens to your spleen and it needs to be removed, you can live without it; you just may become more prone to infection and require more vaccinations to protect you against aggressive viruses.
10. STAGES OF CANCER ARE DETERMINED BY THE NUMBER OF AFFECTED LYMPH NODES.
The easiest cancers to treat are those that remain in the tissue where they first occur. However, in metastatic cancers, cancer cells migrate to the lymph nodes, which can cause cancer to spread. "When the cancer is detected in lymph nodes, we have to try to find out how many lymph nodes are involved," Medina says. "Lymph node involvements [determines] the prognosis of the cancer." When lymph node involvement occurs, "the treatment has to be more aggressive," she says, often adding radiation to a regime of chemotherapy and other drugs.
11. RESEARCHERS ARE TURNING THE BODY'S OWN LYMPHOCYTES INTO CANCER FIGHTING TREATMENTS.
Breakthroughs in immunotherapy known as Car T-cell therapy turn the body's own immune system into a weapon against cancer by engineering patients' own immune cells to recognize and attack their tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute. "What's happening—it's just beautiful—is that [researchers] are using B-lymphocytes to fight not only breast cancer, but leukemia and lymphomas," Medina explains. "The results are so good and encouraging, changing chances of survival."