Very often I see patients who have swellings or lumps in the neck and their first question is “should I be worried?” This is a great question but the answer is not always straightforward. There are many different causes of swelling in the neck that range from harmless to the very concerning. Let’s talk about how to tell the difference.
There are many structures in the region of the neck and because of its slender anatomy, lumps can be easily detected. The most common sources of lumps are lymph nodes. These are part of the glandular system of the body that responds to “foreign” invaders. Thus, they can become enlarged due to infections or sometimes due to cancers. Infections are thankfully far more common, and almost all of us have experienced these swellings in the neck area after an illness such as sore throat or the flu. In these instances, the swellings are usually tender and resolve themselves over time.
Less commonly, cancers of the head and neck, or types of blood-related cancers like leukemia or lymphoma can cause lymph nodes to be enlarged. By contrast, these are usually painless and much firmer. This does not mean that all painless swellings reflect cancer, but getting evaluated by a physician would be wise if there is any doubt.
Other causes include skin cysts, benign fatty growths (very common), thyroid nodules, and salivary gland stones or growths. The latter two we will discuss further in later columns. If you have a swelling of the neck that is persistent, my advice is to have it evaluated by a physician. The majority of them are nothing to worry about, but for those of concern, early detection precedes successful treatment. Hope this helps!
Dr. Seetahal is a board-certified general and bariatric surgeon. He has published over 20 scientific articles and book chapters. For questions related to surgical health, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call his office at 863-421-7626 to schedule an appointment.