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Really, Though: What Do Lymph Nodes Actually Do?

You probably hear about ‘lymph nodes’ every now and again—and if so, you might find yourself wondering what these nodes even are and what the lymphatic system does. Not to worry—all will be explained.

In essence, lymph nodes (which are small and bean-shaped) are part of the lymphatic network, and integral to our immune systems. Our lymph nodes—we have between 500-700 of them!—carry lymph fluid throughout our entire bodies, performing a critical function: protecting us from infection inside the body. This powerhouse network filters bacteria, waste, and other bad guys.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, lymph nodes also help remove protein from tissues, transport fat from the small intestine, and supply the bloodstream with white blood cells (lymphocytes).

They’re located all over the body, notably under the jawline (where some folks notice “swollen glands”—which are actually nodes), along the collarbone, and in the armpit, abdomen, and groin. There are smaller and larger nodes—when a small lymph node battles infection, the node swells as it accumulates (and attempts to kill) bacteria. The larger lymph nodes then transport the cleaned lymph fluid back to a vein called the superior vena cava, where it goes back into the bloodstream.

What Might Cause A Swollen Lymph Node?

Lymph node swelling isn’t a disease, but a symptom of an issue. At some point, we’ve all dealt with something as simple as a cold, with accompanying swollen nodes in our throat. But raging infections (think ear infection, strep throat, measles, mono), immune disorders (lupus or rheumatoid arthritis) or cancers (like lymphoma or others that spread to the lymph nodes) can also cause the nodes to become large and swollen.

You can, according to the Cleveland Clinic, experience swollen nodes in one area (localized) or in two or more areas or everywhere (generalized), the latter potentially signaling a more serious issue.

If you’ve had swollen lymph nodes for longer than two weeks, see your doctor. Also causes for a check-up: swelling appears when you’re not sick; nodes feel hard or don’t move, or are accompanied by weight loss, fever, or sweating; or nodes have appeared for no apparent reason.

If you do a see a doctor, they may feel for the size of the lymph (nodes over two centimeters may be cause for further exploration), and will go from there (they may perform a physical or order blood-work).

Relieving Swollen Lymph Nodes

A warm compress or hot bath can greatly reduce the pain associated with swollen lymph nodes. Anti-inflammatory painkillers are recommended by American Journal Case Report, which also notes that corticosteroids may be used for persistent or serious pain due to swollen lymph nodes.

The lymph nodes can also be ‘activated’ to circulate lymph fluid by pressure or movement, which is why you may have seen ‘lymphatic’ massages offered in some spas. In fact, massage was found by Nurses Research and Practice journal to be effective in promoting the drainage of lymph fluid.

“Lymphatic massage is extremely beneficial to a person after surgery or at times when the body gets stagnant,” says Misty Dawn Newton, a licensed masseuse in San Diego, CA.

Fun lymph node fact: Bouncing on a trampoline is considered one of the best exercises a person can do to stimulate and clear the lymph nodes. A study in The Journal of Applied Physiology found that the “the magnitude of the biomechanical stimuli” (or the observable effects on the body) was greater with trampoline jumping than with other movements, like running. This is not only because exercise boosts immunity, but muscular contractions help keep the lymphatic system functioning properly.

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