What You Need to Know About Your Lymph Nodes

The tiny bean-shaped glands are trying to tell you something.

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They belong to a very smart system that protects you against infections of all kinds. That lump under your arm? Just another lymph node doing its job. Help it out already with our tips!

The Vitals

  • 600: The number of lymph nodes in the body.
  • 1 pea: The average size of a normal lymph node.
  • 4.2 quarts: The amount of fluid that the lymphatic system moves around daily.

How Your Lymph Nodes Work

1. Your lymphatic and circulatory systems are mapped out next to each other. Each time your blood completes a lap of the body, it leaves behind one percent of its fluid content in the tissues. This is absorbed by nearby lymph capillaries to become a clear substance called lymph.

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2. Lymph travels through lymphatic vessels, one-way highways that run from your outer peripheries to the heart. The mission of this internal road trip is to return the missing fluid to the circulatory system while protecting you from illness.

3. Immune cells in lymph act as police, keeping an eye out for invaders like bacteria and viruses (aka antigens). When they spot a bad guy, they travel through the vessels to the nearest lymph node — small, bean-shaped glands that house disease-fighting cells. These cells are sent to the antigen and then released into the circulatory system to clear your body of the problem.

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4. After moving through a node, lymph slowly continues its travels, journeying from the vessels to larger tubes (lymphatic trunks) and then eventually completing its trip, reentering the circulatory system through big veins known as lymphatic ducts near the heart. Mission complete.

What's Up With That Bump?

Lymph nodes are located in clusters, from behind your ears all the way down to your knees, though they're most prominent in your neck, armpits, and groin — and that's where you may find a painful lump, says Stanley Rockson, MD, director of the Center for Lymphatic and Venous Disorders at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Lymph nodes are positioned like tollbooths on the highway of lymphatic vessels. Lymph passes through each node in its path, giving your immune system multiple chances to deal with a virus or other bad guy.

While alarming, a swollen node is a good sign: It means that your immune system is working to fight an infection in a nearby part of the body. (If you have a throat infection, for example, a node in your neck may puff up.) So what's going on? When your body identifies a threat, the number of immune cells in the node dramatically increases to prep for a fight, causing the area to balloon. Don't stress if your nodes act up often — you may just have a strong immune system that's putting in overtime to keep you healthy.

Swelling? See a Doc

Like a rain gutter, a healthy lymph system drains excess fluid from your body's tissues so that it doesn't pool. But if there's too much liquid to transport, the gutter can spill over, leading to water retention, most often in the arms or legs.

The Sweat Solution

Trust us: You don't want a sluggish lymphatic system — it can lead to fluid buildup and swelling. Unlike with blood, which is propelled by your heart, there's no pump to help drive lymph. Instead, it gets around thanks to the subtle squeezing of muscles that happens when you move. Aim to get in at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week to encourage lymph to flow normally, and consider yoga, too. The deep, diaphragm-engaging breathing may stimulate your lymphatic system.

You Can Ease the Ouch

Once your body clears itself of an infection, lymph nodes will return to normal size in about a week or two, but if yours are giving you grief, ease pain at home with a warm, wet compress or OTC pain relievers. Occasionally, an enlarged node is a sign of something more serious, like an immune problem, reaction to a medication, or — rarely — cancer, says Wanda Filer, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. If the texture feels rock-hard, swelling sticks around for more than two weeks, or your lump is bigger than half an inch in diameter, get checked out by your doctor.

This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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