LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Identify the parts of the lymphatic system and their function.

All tissue cells of the body are continuously bathed in interstitial fluid. This fluid is formed by leakage of blood plasma through minute pores of the capillaries. There is a continual interchange of fluids of the blood and tissue spaces with a free interchange of nutrients and other dissolved substances. Most of the tissue fluid returns to the circulatory system by means of capillaries, which feed into larger veins. Large protein molecules that have escaped from the arterial capillaries cannot reenter the circulation through the small pores of the capillaries. However, these large molecules, as well as white blood cells, dead cells, bacterial debris, infected substances, and larger particulate matter, can pass through the larger pores of the lymphatic capillaries and, thus, enter the lymphatic circulatory system with the remainder of the tissue fluid.

The lymphatic system also helps defend the tissues against infections by supporting the activities of the lymphocytes, which give immunity, or resistance, to the effects of specific disease-causing agents.


The lymphatic pathway begins with lymphatic capillaries. These small tubes merge to form lymphatic vessels, and the lymphatic vessels in turn lead to larger vessels that join with the veins in the thorax.

Lymphatic Capillaries

Lymphatic capillaries are closed-ended tubes of microscopic size (fig. 1-37). They extend into interstitial spaces, forming complex networks that parallel blood capillary networks. The lymphatic capillary wall consists of a single layer of squamous epithelial cells. This thin wall makes it possible for interstitial fluid to enter the lymphatic capillary. Once the interstitial fluid enters the lymphatic capillaries, the fluid is called lymph.

Figure 1-37.—Lymphatic capillary and vessel.

Lymphatic Vessels

Lymphatic vessels are formed from the merging of lymphatic capillaries (fig. 1-37). Lymphatic vessels, also known simply as lymphatics, are similar to veins in structure. The vessel walls are composed of three layers: an inner layer of endothelial tissue, a middle layer of smooth muscle and elastic fibers, and an outer layer of connective tissue. Like a vein, the lymphatic vessel has valves to prevent backflow of lymph. The larger lymphatic vessels lead to specialized organs called lymph nodes. After leaving these structures, the vessels merge to form still larger lymphatic trunks.

Lymphatic Trunks and Ducts

Lymphatic trunks drain lymph from large regions in the body. The lymphatic trunks are usually named after the region they serve, such as the subclavian trunk that drains the arm. There are many lymphatic trunks through out the body. These lymphatic trunks then join one of two collecting ducts, the thoracic duct and the right lymphatic duct (fig. 1-38).

Lymphatic trunks from the upper half of the right side of the body converge to form the right lymphatic duct, which empties into the right subclavian vein. Drainage from the remainder of the body is by way of the thoracic duct, which empties into the left subclavian vein.


Lymph nodes, which are frequently called glands but are not true glands, are small bean-shaped bodies of lymphatic tissue found in groups of two to fifteen along the course of the lymph vessels (fig. 1-38). Major locations of lymph nodes are in the following regions: cervical, axillary, inguinal, pelvic cavity, abdominal cavity, and thoracic cavity. Lymph nodes vary in size and act as filters to remove bacteria and particles from the lymph stream. Lymph nodes produce lymphocytes, which help defend the body against harmful foreign particles, such as bacteria, cells, and viruses. Lymph nodes also contain macrophages, which engulf and destroy foreign substances, damaged cells, and cellular debris.

Figure 1-38.—Pathway of right lymphatic duct and thoracic duct.