lymph glands

Lymph node

A Lymph node is an organ consisting of many types of cells, and is a part of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, and act as filters or traps for foreign particles and contain white blood cells. Thus they are important in the proper functioning of the immune system.

Lymph nodes also have clinical significance. They become inflamed or enlarged in various conditions, which may range from the trivial, such as a throat infection, to life-threatening conditions such as cancers. In the latter, the condition of lymph nodes is so significant that it is used for cancer staging, which decides the treatment modalities to be employed, and for determining the prognosis.

Lymph nodes can also be used for diagnosis by biopsy whenever they are inflamed. Certain diseases affect lymph nodes with characteristic consistency and location.


Pathogens can set up infections anywhere in the body. However, lymphocytes will meet the antigens in the peripheral lymphoid organs, which includes lymph nodes. The antigens are displayed by specialized cells in the lymph nodes. Naive lymphocytes, naive meaning the cells have not encountered an antigen yet, enter the node from the bloodstream through specialized capillary venules. After the lymphocytes specialize they will exit the lymph node through the efferent lymphatic vessel with the rest of the lymph. The lymphocytes continuously recirculate the peripheral lymphoid organs and the state of the lymph nodes depends on infection. During an infection the lymph nodes can expand due to intense B-cell proliferation in the germinal centers, this is commonly referred to as swollen glands.


The lymph node is surrounded by a fibrous capsule, and inside the lymph node the fibrous capsule extends to form trabeculae. The substance of the lymph node is divided into the outer cortex and the inner medulla surrounded by the former all around except for at the hilum, where the medulla comes in direct contact with the surface.

Thin reticular fibers, elastin and reticular fibers form a supporting meshwork called reticular network (RN) inside the node, within which the white blood cells (WBCs), most prominently, lymphocytes are tightly packed as follicles in the cortex. Elsewhere, there are only occasional WBCs. The RN provides not just the structural support, but also provide surface for adhesion of the dendritic cells, macrophages and lymphocytes. It allows for exchange of material with blood through the high endothelial venules and provides the growth and regulatory factors necessary for activation and maturation of immune cells.

The number and composition of follicles can change especially when challenged by an antigen, when they develop a germinal center.

A lymph sinus is a channel within the lymph node lined by the endothelial cells along with fibroblastic reticular cells and allows for smooth flow of lymph through them. Thus, subcapsular sinus is a sinus immediately deep to the capsule, and its endothelium is continuous with that of the afferent lymph vessel. It is also continuous with similar sinuses flanking the trabeculae and within the cortex (cortical sinuses). The cortical sinuses and that flanking the trabeculae drain into the medullary sinuses, from where the lymph flows into the efferent lymph vessel.

Multiple afferent lymph vessels that branch and network extensively within the capsule bring lymph into the lymph node. This lymph enters the subcapsular sinus. The innermost lining of the afferent lymph vessels is continuous with the cells lining the lymph sinuses. The lymph gets slowly filtered through the substance of the lymph node and ultimately reaches the medulla. In its course it encounters the lymphocytes and may lead to their activation as a part of adaptive immune response.

The concave side of the lymph node is called the hilum. The efferent attaches to the hilum by a relatively dense reticulum present there, and carries the lymph out of the lymph node.


In the cortex, the subcapsular sinus drains to cortical sinuses.

The outer cortex consists mainly of the B cells arranged as follicles, which may develop a germinal center when challenged with an antigen, and the deeper cortex mainly consisting of the T cells. There a zone known as the dendritic cells, and where the RN is dense.


There are two named structures in the medulla:

  • The medullary cords are cords of lymphatic tissue, and include plasma cells and B cells
  • The medullary sinuses (or sinusoids) are vessel-like spaces separating the medullary cords. The Lymph flows into the medullary sinuses from cortical sinuses, and into efferent lymphatic vessels. Medullary sinuses contain histiocytes (immobile macrophages) and reticular cells.

Shape and size

Human lymph nodes are bean-shaped and range in size from a few millimeters to about 1-2 cm in their normal state. They may become enlarged due to a tumor or infection. White blood cells are located within honeycomb structures of the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are enlarged when the body is infected due to enhanced production of some cells and division of activated T and B cells. In some cases they may feel enlarged due to past infections; although one may be healthy, one may still feel them residually enlarged.

Lymphatic circulation

Lymph circulates to the lymph node via afferent lymphatic vessels and drains into the node just beneath the capsule in a space called the subcapsular sinus. The subcapsular sinus drains into trabecular sinuses and finally into medullary sinuses. The sinus space is criss-crossed by the pseudopods of macrophages which act to trap foreign particles and filter the lymph. The medullary sinuses converge at the hilum and lymph then leaves the lymph node via the efferent lymphatic vessel towards either a more central lymph node or ultimately for drainage into a central venous subclavian blood vessel, most via Virchow's node and Ductus Thoracicus. Valves on the afferent side prevent backflow.

Lymphocytes, both B cells and T cells, constantly circulate through the lymph nodes. They enter the lymph node via the postcapillary venules, and cross its wall by the process of diapedesis.

  • The B cells migrate to the nodular cortex and medulla.
  • The T cells migrate to the deep cortex ("paracortex").

When a lymphocyte recognizes an antigen, B cells become activated and migrate to germinal centers (by definition, a "secondary nodule" has a germinal center, while a "primary nodule" does not). When antibody-producing plasma cells are formed, they migrate to the medullary cords. Stimulation of the lymphocytes by antigens can accelerate the migration process to about 10 times normal, resulting in characteristic swelling of the lymph nodes.

The spleen and tonsils are large lymphoid organs that serve similar functions to lymph nodes, though the spleen filters blood cells rather than lymph.


Humans have approximately 500-600 lymph nodes distributed throughout the body, with clusters found in the underarms, groin, neck, chest, and abdomen.

Lymph nodes of the human head and neck

  • Cervical lymph nodes
  • Tonsillar: (sub mandibular) These nodes are located just below the angle of the mandible. They drain the tonsillar and posterior pharyngeal regions.
  • Sub-mandibular: These nodes run along the underside of the jaw on either side. They drain the structures in the floor of the mouth.
  • Sub-mental: These nodes are just below the chin. They drain the teeth and intra-oral cavity.
  • Supraclavicular lymph nodes: These nodes are in the hollow above the clavicle, just lateral to where it joins the sternum. They drain a part of the thoracic cavity and abdomen. Virchow's node is a left supraclavicular lymph node which receives the lymph drainage from most of the body (especially the abdomen) via the thoracic duct and is thus an early site of metastasis for various malignancies.

Lymph nodes of the arm

These drain the whole of the arm, and are divided into two groups, superficial and deep. The superficial nodes are supplied by lymphatics which are present throughout the arm, but are particularly rich on the palm and flexor aspects of the digits.

  • Superficial lymph glands of the arm:
  • Deep lymph glands of the arm: These comprise the axillary glands, which are 20-30 individual glands and can be subdivided into:
    • lateral glands
    • anterior or pectoral glands
    • posterior or subscapular glands
    • central or intermediate glands
    • medial or subclavicular glands

Lower limbs


Lymphadenopathy is a term meaning "disease of the lymph nodes." It is, however, almost synonymously used with "swollen/enlarged lymph nodes". In this case, the lymph nodes are palpable, and is a sign of various infections and diseases.

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