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Is it a Lump or a Lymph Node?

Is it a Lump or a Lymph Node?

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Updated April 10, 2014

Is it a Lump or a Lymph Node?

Lymph Nodes

Photo © A.D.A.M.

Having a lump can be terrifying. As a teenager, I discovered a large lump on the back of my neck. With no other symptoms of illness, I immediately feared the worst. I remember that on the way to the doctor's office, I debated on whether or not I would do chemo. What a relief when the doctor told me that the lump was a swollen lymph node. I had strep throat. Bizarre, since my throat was not sore. After a course of antibiotics, the lump disappeared.

Contrast that experience from one that occurred seven years later. I found a large lump on the front of my neck. Again, I feared the worst. I wanted answers. It was a weekend and my doctor couldn't see me. The lump wasn't large enough to be considered an emergency. It was one of the longest weekends of my life. In this case, the lump turned out to be thyroid cancer. This was a different experience than having a swollen lymph node. Here is some information I wish I would have had to guide me through these experiences.

Different Types of Lumps

For the purpose of this article, we'll divide lumps into three categories: lymph nodes and glands, non-cancerous (benign) lumps, and cancerous (malignant) lumps.

So What is a Lymph Node Anyway?

Lymph nodes are tiny organs that appear throughout the body and function as part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an extension of the immune system. Lymph nodes filter a fluid called lymph, trapping bacteria and other harmful substances. Because of their function, they often become swollen during an infection. Lymph nodes are found in the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen and groin. Medical experts know where these nodes are located, which helps a lot when it comes to diagnosing lumps. Despite my bizarre strep throat experience, swollen lymph nodes are often accompanied by other symptoms of infection.

When you have enlarged lymph nodes, people, or even doctors, might refer to them as swollen glands. This can be confusing because a true gland is an organ that secretes something -- hormones, saliva, oil etc. If you have an active infection, you might be able to feel lumps in your neck, especially under the jaw and chin -- these are lymph nodes. They should return to their normal size when the infection clears up. Here are some common illnesses that can cause swollen lymph nodes:

Infection is by far the most common cause of enlarged lymph nodes. However, enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by cancer. Especially Hodgkins disease and Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Benign Lumps

Benign lumps go by many names. We'll discuss some of the common types of benign lumps below:

Nodules

A nodule is actually a generic term. It can refer to all kinds of lumps both cancerous and not. Usually physicians will refer to a lump as a nodule until they can discover exactly what the lump is. Cysts can sometimes be called nodules. Nodules can form on any part of the body including the thyroid and vocal cords. A nodule can be a solid lump of non-cancerous tissue. Whether a nodule should be treated depends on whether or not it is causing symptoms, if or how quickly it is growing, and where it is on the body.

Cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs of tissue that appear as lumps. They are not solid. Cysts can occur in almost every area on the body. Depending on their size and location they may have to be surgically drained. Many cysts go away on their own.

Lypomas

A lypoma is benign lump filled with fat. They are not cancerous but sometimes have to be surgically removed depending on their size and location. People who have had one lypoma or a family history of lypomas have a tendency to get them again.

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