Reviewed by Rishi Desai, MD, MPH
The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and a vital part of the immune system, comprising a network of lymphatic vessels that carry a clear fluid called lymph (from Latin, lympha meaning water) directionally towards the heart. The lymphatic system was first described in the seventeenth century independently by Olaus Rudbeck and Thomas Bartholin. Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system is not a closed system. The human circulatory system processes an average of 20 liters of blood per day through capillary filtration, which removes plasma while leaving the blood cells. Roughly 17 litres of the filtered plasma are reabsorbed directly into the blood vessels, while the remaining three litres remain in the interstitial fluid. One of the main functions of the lymph system is to provide an accessory return route to the blood for the surplus three litres.
Lymphatic anatomy and physiology
As blood circulates throughout the body, nutrients, wastes, and gases are exchanged between the blood and interstitial fluid. Fluid is forced out of the blood and some remains behind in the tissue spaces. This fluid, along with plasma proteins that may escape from the bloodstream, must be returned to the blood by the lymphatic vessels.