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Movement Matters - Pumping the Lymphatic System

Undergoing cancer treatment can be taxing on the body. There will always be days when a patient just wants to curl up and hide under a blanket. Sometimes those days will stretch to weeks. And there will always be people who insist that the patient "gets enough "rest," encouraging the patient to stay in bed. But our bodies are designed to move in order to enhance our immune system. In fact, we must move to increase lymphatic flow. Without getting up and around, a patient cannot purge the toxins collected and transported by our lymph nodes and vessels.

The lymph system's role in immunity

The immune system is a very intricate network of organs, vessels, and specialized cells that work throughout our bodies to keep us healthy. The first line of defense is to keep pathogens out, and the skin and mucous membranes do a very good job of this. Our bodies also produce an enzyme that kills off many forms of bacteria that may get in our eyes or our airways. The acidic environment in the stomach will kill most bacteria and viruses that come in on food. Beyond the skin and mucous membranes, other parts of the immune system work together to as the "lymphatic system." These include bone marrow, the spleen, the thymus, tonsils, bowels, and the lymph nodes. Bone marrow and the thymus work in concert to form T cell lymphocytes, the antigens that are responsible for destroying foreign cells in the body. They typically do their job inside of tonsils, the spleen, the bowel, and the lymph nodes where pathogens are collected.

Immunity and age

From adolescence through adult years, the red bone marrow and the thymus slowly become less robust in developing the important T cells. In most of the bones in the body, the red marrow that manufactures these cells turns to fatty tissue. The thymus also begins to turn into fatty tissue with age. For this reason, older people may have less internal support for fighting pathogens.

How the lymphatic system works

Lymph nodes and their associated vessels act as a transport system between blood and tissue. Blood transports nutrients to cells throughout the body, essentially leaking blood from veins into tissue. The tissue is both cleaned and fed by this fluid that has left the bloodstream, collecting waste from the tissue before draining into lymph vessels. Lymph fluid is comprised of this reclaimed fluid from the bloodstream, along with any pathogens or damaged cells that need to be removed. Loose cancer cells are also picked up in this process.

The lymph vessels act as a filtration system, separating pathogens while the lymph nodes activate antibodies in the bloodstream. Typically, swollen lymph nodes indicate active production of antibodies to fight infection. In addition to fighting pathogens, the lymphatic system is also responsible for maintaining a healthy fluid balance, draining and filtering up to two liters of fluid daily that would otherwise continue to collect in tissue throughout the body.

Movement and the lymphatic system

As fluid enters the lymph vessels, muscle contraction "pumps" it upward toward the neck. Valves prevent lymph fluid from flowing backward, so each time muscles contract the lymph fluid is pushed higher. There are access points near the neck on both the right and left side of the torso where filtered lymph fluid is able to rejoin the blood circulatory system.

Unlike the cardiovascular system that has a dedicated pump in the form of the heart muscle, the lymphatic system has no central pump. For this reason, the fluid tends to move comparatively slowly in the body; lymph fluid is pushed along on its path as we breathe or move. Primarily, it is the contraction of skeletal muscles that squeeze the lymph vessels, creating lymphatic circulation.

For cancer patients undergoing treatment, it may be difficult to get up and about, but some movement may help the patient to feel better while also supporting basic immune function. If it is not possible to get outside for a walk, then investing in a small trampoline may offer a solution that encourages movement without requiring strenuous activity. Just bouncing gently for a few minutes at intervals throughout the day will assist in the process of lymphatic flow. It might also invigorate the patient in other ways, as one of the byproducts of being active is often finding more energy to be active with.1-9

Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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