Lymphatic vessels are among several structures belonging to your lymphatic system. In order to understand how lymphatic vessels work, you’ll first need a rudimentary knowledge of how your circulatory system functions because many of these two systems’ tasks are intertwined. In fact, the vessels of your lymphatic system tend to run right alongside the vessels of your circulatory system.
Your circulatory system consists of a pump (your heart) and a network of tubes that conduct blood throughout your body (your blood vessels). With each heartbeat, blood is forced into your arteries, which carry blood away from your heart and toward all of your tissues and organs. As your arteries travel farther from your heart, they divide into progressively smaller vessels called arterioles, which themselves divide into tiny, thin-walled, somewhat leaky vessels called capillaries.
As blood travels through your capillaries, oxygen, nutrients, and fluid are pushed into the surrounding tissues, and carbon dioxide and cellular wastes are retrieved. The blood then proceeds on its way, coursing into progressively larger vessels called venules and then into even larger veins, which finally return the blood to your heart. If the fluid that leaked into your tissues from your bloodstream remained there, your cells would soon drown in the excess. That’s where your lymphatic system picks up the ball.
Function of the Lymphatic System
Mingled among the blood capillaries throughout your body is another network of tiny, thin-walled vessels called lymphatic capillaries. Lymphatic capillaries are designed to pick up the fluid that leaks into your tissues from your bloodstream and return it to your circulatory system.
Nature has ingeniously devised your lymphatic and circulatory systems so the pressure in your blood capillaries is slightly higher than the pressure in your lymphatic capillaries. This pressure gradient from blood capillary to tissue to lymphatic capillary gradually moves fluid from your circulatory system to your lymphatic system, much like water in a river flows downhill.
Just like their neighboring blood capillaries, your lymphatic capillaries join into progressively larger tubes called lymphatic vessels, which transport the fluid from your tissues (this fluid is now called lymph) toward the center of your body. Eventually, the lymph is returned to your bloodstream through two large ducts in the upper central portion of your chest.
The largest of these lymphatic ducts, the thoracic duct, originates in your abdomen, where it collects lymph from your legs, intestine, and other internal organs. As it proceeds upward into your chest, the thoracic duct collects lymph from your thoracic organs, your left arm, and the left side of your head and neck.
The right lymphatic duct, which is much shorter than the thoracic duct, begins high in the right side of your chest. It collects lymph from the right side of your chest wall, your right arm, and the right side of your head and neck. The thoracic duct and the right lymphatic duct reintroduce lymph to your bloodstream through the large veins returning to your heart from your arms: the left and right subclavian veins.
The general structure of lymphatics is based on that of blood vessels. There is an inner lining of single flattened epithelial cells (simple squamous epithelium) composed of a type of epithelium that is called endothelium, and the cells are called endothelial cells. This layer functions to mechanically transport fluid and since the basement membrane on which it rests is discontinuous; it leaks easily.
The next layer is that of smooth muscles that are arranged in a circular fashion around the endothelium, which by shortening (contracting) or relaxing alter the diameter (caliber) of the lumen. The outermost layer is the adventitia that consists of fibrous tissue. The general structure described here is seen only in larger lymphatics; smaller lymphatics have fewer layers.
The smallest vessels (lymphatic or lymph capillaries) lack both the muscular layer and the outer adventitia. As they proceed forward and in their course are joined by other capillaries, they grow larger and first take on an adventitia, and then smooth muscles.
The lymphatic conducting system broadly consists of two types of channels—the initial lymphatics, the prelymphatics or lymph capillaries that specialize in collection of the lymph from the ISF, and the larger lymph vessels that propel the lymph forward.
Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is not closed and has no central pump. Lymph movement occurs despite low pressure due to peristalsis (propulsion of the lymph due to alternate contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle), valves, and compression during contraction of adjacent skeletal muscle and arterial pulsation.