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Joachim Zuther, Lymphedema Specialist. Read more
Lohmann Rauscher

Tactile Medical

Comparison of Blood and Lymph Vessels


The heart and blood vessels represent the main components of the circulatory system, which consists of an elaborate network of tubes throughout the body. The circulatory system involves the combined functioning of the heart, blood and blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to organ systems and tissues, and to remove waste products resulting from metabolism.

The lymphatic system is composed of an intricate system of lymphatic vessels and lymphatic tissues including lymph nodes, spleen and thymus. The main purpose of lymphatic vessels is to absorb and return lymph fluid from the body back to the blood, and to assist in the body’s immune function.

Blood Vessels
Three types of blood vessels can be differentiated. Arteries carry blood away from the heart, and veins carry blood toward the heart. Capillaries are the smallest links between arteries and veins and are formed by small arteries, called arterioles branching out to become progressively smaller in diameter. The thin wall of the capillaries enables an exchange of oxygen and nutrients into the body tissues and absorption of carbon dioxide and waste products back into the blood circulatory system.
In order to withstand the high pressure of blood pumped from the heart, arteries have a thicker wall and a better developed system of smooth muscles in their walls compared to veins. The blood pressure in the veins is much lower, and the smooth musculature in the walls of veins is not as well developed as it is in arteries. Due to the lower pressure (compared to the pressure in arteries), there is a chance of pooling of blood in the venous system, which is prevented by functioning one-way valves inside the veins to support blood flow against gravity toward the heart.

Lymph Vessels
The lymphatic system is closely associated with the blood system and represents an accessory route by which lymph fluid can flow from the body’s tissues back into the blood stream. Lymph vessels can be categorized into lymph capillaries, precollectors, lymph collectors and lymphatic trunks. Lymph capillaries represent the beginning of the lymphatic drainage system and originate in close proximity to blood capillaries. Lymph capillaries resemble blood capillaries but have a more irregular cell structure, and their walls are more permeable than those of blood capillaries. Because of their unique structure, lymph capillaries are able to absorb larger particles from the tissues, such as proteins, cells, bacteria and other large substances, which cannot be absorbed by blood capillaries. These particles, together with water then travel through an intricate network of precollectors and larger lymph collectors and trunks back into the blood circulation via the venous angles, which are comprised of the internal jugular and subclavian veins on either side of the neck.
On its way back to the blood, lymphatic fluid travels through a successive number of lymph nodes, which filter out impurities from the lymph.

Main Differences between Blood and Lymph Vessels
The circulatory system represents a closed system with the heart as its central motor, and blood and blood vessels as the other structural elements. The main purpose of the blood vessels is the uninterrupted supply of all body tissues with nutrients and oxygenated blood, and the removal of metabolic waste and carbon dioxide from the tissue cells. The part of the circulatory system that delivers blood to and from the lungs is known as the pulmonary circulation, and the flow of blood throughout the rest of the body is administered by the systemic circulation.

The lymphatic system and its vessels do not form a closed circulatory system. It begins with small lymphatic vessels (lymph capillaries) in the body tissues, and continues with successively larger lymphatic vessels (collectors and trunks), which ultimately connect to the venous part of the blood circulatory system. There is no central pump, lymph vessels produce their own propulsion system with a network of smooth musculature located in the walls of lymph collectors and trunks. Since the lymph vessels work according to the one-way principle and not as a closed circulatory system, it is more appropriate to speak of lymph transport rather than lymph circulation. While the flow of blood through the blood vessels is uninterrupted, the transport of lymph fluid through the lymph vessel system is interrupted by lymph nodes.

Additional Resources:

Cancerquest: Anatomy of the Lymphatic System
LymphNotes; Understanding the Lymphatic System

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14 comments to Comparison of Blood and Lymph Vessels

  • Cynthia

    Is lymphedema considered a disability?

  • Julie Green

    Is intramuscular edema treated the same and is it very successful. I am not having much luck with GCB and MLD for intramuscular edema of the bicep muscle.

    Please advise
    Julie Green

    • Joachim Zuther

      Dear Julie: Intramuscular edema has different causes and not treated as lymphedema. MLD is geared to manipulate the lymphatic structures in the subcutaneous tissues.

  • Audrey Aho

    What is GCB?

  • Dorothy Williamson

    Thank you for the diagrams and notes. Most people have never heard of lymphedema, including physicians, and do not have any inkling what it is and that treatment is available.

  • Nadia Mendolia

    As a recent graduate from the academy I value your opinion and I wanted to get your views on compression pumps.From what I was taught it is not beneficial for treating lymphedema but my employer feels that it is. Comments?

    • Joachim Zuther

      Dear Nadia:
      Advanced and newer compression pumps consist of multi-chambered inflatable sleeves that include trunk garments containing inflatable chambers designed to prepare drainage areas on the trunk prior to moving fluid from the extremities.

      Pneumatic compression used to treat extremity lymphedema without treatment of adjacent body quadrants and drainage areas using complete decongestive therapy bears a significant risk of moving lymphedemateous fluid from distal to proximal, where it accumulates. This may cause protein molecules to accumulate in this area, forming a fibrosclerotic ring, truncal quadrants previously not swollen to fill with fluid, or external genitalia to swell.

      Recent studies suggest that multi-chambered sequential compression devices that include trunk and extremity garments and deliver the pressurized air in individual patient-oriented patterns may be beneficial as an adjunct treatment to effectively control lymphedema in the self-administered maintenance phase (Phase II of CDT), especially in those cases when physical limitations of the patient may result in challenges controlling the lymphedema independently with self-MLD.

  • Radha Persaud

    Hello – I am a 29 yr old with Lymphedema on my right leg… I managed to keep the swelling under control with compression stockings but I haven’t had any luck finding a doctor to help me get treated … I recently moved to the US because treatment in my country is non existent. Men consider me undateable! Is there any help?

    • Joachim Zuther

      Dear Radha: I would suggest youseek the assistance of a trained lymphedema therapist to control your swelling. Please click on the “Find a Therapist” link on the top of this page in order to locate a therapist in your area.

  • Kate

    I have developed axillary web syndrome without ever having had any surgery of breasts or lymph nodes or that area. Does that mean I have cancer?

    • Joachim Zuther

      Kate: Developing cord-like symptomes certaily does not mean that you have cancer. The cords could be any form of fibrosis and your doctor should be able to evaluate.

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