This review examines the current understanding of how the lymphatic vessel network can optimize lymph flow in response to various mechanical forces. Lymphatics are organized as a vascular tree, with blind-ended initial lymphatics, precollectors, prenodal collecting lymphatics, lymph nodes, postnodal collecting lymphatics and the larger trunks (thoracic duct and right lymph duct) that connect to the subclavian veins. The formation of lymph from interstitial fluid depends heavily on oscillating pressure gradients to drive fluid into initial lymphatics. Collecting lymphatics are segmented vessels with unidirectional valves, with each segment, called a lymphangion, possessing an intrinsic pumping mechanism. The lymphangions propel lymph forward against a hydrostatic pressure gradient. Fluid is returned to the central circulation both at lymph nodes and via the larger lymphatic trunks. Several recent developments are discussed, including evidence for the active role of endothelial cells in lymph formation; recent developments on how inflow pressure, outflow pressure, and shear stress affect the pump function of the lymphangion; lymphatic valve gating mechanisms; collecting lymphatic permeability; and current interpretations of the molecular mechanisms within lymphatic endothelial cells and smooth muscle. An improved understanding of the physiological mechanisms by which lymphatic vessels sense mechanical stimuli, integrate the information, and generate the appropriate response is key for determining the pathogenesis of lymphatic insufficiency and developing treatments for lymphedema.
Keywords: Lymphatic contractile cycle; Lymphatic endothelium; Lymphatic muscle; Lymphatic myogenic response; Lymphedema.
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