Your neck feels swollen. You’re sure it must be something with your glands, so you look up “lymph nodes” online only to realize that you’re more confused than before. It all sounds like something out of a medical school textbook! So are these little lumps making you feel so terrible, and what does it mean when they are swollen anyhow?
What Are They?
We often call lymph nodes glands, which is correct enough, although not entirely right. They vary in size, but the ones you most often feel are about the size of peas or jelly beans and are located throughout the body. The ones that seem to swell most often are in the neck, but there are ones in places, including your armpits and groin.
While some can be felt through the skin, others are about the size of a flea. Some of these are all but impossible to feel in the body, but some do appear in groups – like those in your neck and underarms. Typically they have no feeling and are not hard or tender. They are just there.
They are part of a bigger system in the body called the lymphatic system – this is obviously where they get their name. The lymphatic system moves fluid through the body. This fluid contains nutrients and waste materials and moves between the body tissues and the bloodstream.
Your lymph nodes and the bigger system are all part of your immune system – the defenses that keep you from getting sick. The fluid travels around your body using the lymphatic system. As the fluid moves into them, they filter out all of the bad stuff like bacteria and viruses. White blood cells attack the terrible things that are caught by the filters, and ultimately, the bad stuff is destroyed, and you stay healthy.
What Does It Mean if They Are Swollen?
Of course, no system is perfect, and sometimes you don’t stay healthy. Lymph nodes do swell, but the swelling does not necessarily mean that anything is seriously wrong. Most of the time, the swelling is for something minor. When only one swell, the location of the swelling can do a lot to tell you what the problem might be. Some of the more common things that cause swelling include:
- Sore throat
- Insect bites
The glands behind the ears are the most common to swell. If you feel like the ones directly behind your ears on your neck feel swollen and hard, it may only be due to a cold that you’re struggling with or perhaps a sore throat.
An insect bite near a one can cause swelling as well, and a cut or other small injury can have the same effect. In the armpit, they can swell due to an injury not just to the armpit, but to any location along the arm or even the hand.
In much the same way, an injury or infection on your leg or foot may cause the large cluster in the groin to swell. Of course, in the case of damage or illness, the glands closest to the actual problem will become swollen. It’s unlikely that the ones in your groin will become swollen when you’re dealing with a sore throat, for example.
While there are many common reasons for swelling, there are more serious, less common reasons as well. In the case of a cold or injury, they will stop swelling as your condition improves, returning to normal on their own. Other, more severe conditions may mean more medical attention is necessary to solve the swelling of your nodes.
These severe conditions can include:
- Viral illnesses
- Severe diseases including mononucleosis and bacterial infections
In most cases, if you have only one affected area of swelling. Like in your neck, for example, may swell if you are likely experiencing a minor, ordinary condition. The swelling will be reduced in a few days or perhaps a week.
In more severe conditions, the swelling may persist well past one week – possibly for months. If this is the case, it may be that the swelling in a single area is indicative of a tumor. This may be a benign tumor, or it may be cause for concern as swelling in a particular area can be a symptom of certain types of cancer. Prolonged swelling in the groin’s nodes, for example, can be a sign of testicular cancer or lymphoma.
If you are experiencing swelling in multiple locations, even for a short time, consult with your medical provider to find a cause. The majority of conditions that cause multiple ones to swell at the same time are dangerous. Some of these causes can include:
- Viral illnesses such as measles, chickenpox or mumps
- Mononucleosis or “the kissing disease,” which can make you incapacitated for weeks with fatigue and fever.
- Bacterial illnesses such as Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks, or a strep throat.
- HIV or AIDS, both of which attack the immune system.
- Cancer, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- The side effects of certain prescribed medications, including phenytoin and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
- Sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis
If you have reason to suspect your swolling may be due to one of these causes, especially if they remain swollen for more than just a few days, please seek the advice of a doctor.
Treating a swollen one sounds simple enough – you treat the problem that’s causing the swelling. If you have a cold that is causing your swelling, you manage the symptoms of the cold, including the drainage and sore throat, and they will gradually reduce in size and return to a healthy state.
If you have a more serious illness causing the swelling, you may need help to treat the cause. For example, a bacterial infection like strep will need antibiotics. A viral infection will likely go away on its own, but the disease may be speeding along its way with certain medications. Swollen ones that are caused by injuries or infections will need to run the course of the injury or wait until the disease has been appropriately treated.
In the vast majority of cases, the swelling will reduce in size gradually until they are healthy again and no longer a concern, although the swelling may last longer than the cold or injury. This is true for ones that are swollen and tender and those that are merely swollen and hard without hurting.
If you have ones that are swollen in multiple areas, it may be that a virus or medicinal side effect has to run its course before the swelling usually reduces. However, if you have more than one area affected by swelling and the symptoms are getting worse instead of better, or you do not see any reduction after a few weeks, it may be necessary to have the area tested.
Testing If They Are Swollen
Two possible tests may be used at your doctor’s office to evaluate swollen lymph nodes. The first is a blood test that will show signs of specific diseases or conditions that may be causing them to swell. The second test is a form of biopsy to test the contents.
A biopsy (Lymph node biopsy – Harvard Health Publications ) is a procedure that removes a small amount of tissue. The tissues removed is placed on a slide and examined under a microscope for infections or more serious conditions like cancer. Other tests may be performed on the tissue, as well. These processes may include genetic tests, cultures for individual diseases, and tests to determine if an autoimmune disorder like HIV or AIDS is present.
If you have had swollen glands for some time or they are not returning to their normal state with treatment for a more routine condition, your doctor may ask you to have a biopsy performed. There are three ways this may be done:
- Fine-needle biopsy – The fine-needle biopsy is the opposite of a shot. The doctor uses a thin needle to pull the material out of your lymph node rather than putting medicine into your body. The needle size is roughly the same.
- Core-needle biopsy – In a core-needle biopsy, the doctor removes a larger sample of tissue using a special needle. This needle is more extensive and has a special tip. When inserted, it excludes a tissue sample that is about the size of a grain of rice.
- Surgical biopsy – If a larger sample is needed, your doctor may perform a small surgical procedure to remove a nymph lode for testing. This is called an open or surgical biopsy. In some cases, the doctor may remove more than one lymph node from the same area at a given time. This is called a lymph dissection but is essentially the same procedure.
In the case of the fine-needle or core-needle biopsy, you can expect the procedure to be done using a local anesthetic, and there is no need to plan for any downtime following the surgery. In both cases, the surgeon will numb the area where the biopsy is to be performed. The needle is inserted and removed once the area is prepared. After the needle is removed, a bandage is applied, and the process is complete. The full biopsy procedure in these cases can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes.
In the case of the open or surgical biopsy, you may have either general anesthesia or local anesthesia, depending on the location of the biopsy. The closer to the skin, the fewer anesthesias will be used. If multiple ones are to be removed, or they are in a complicated area, general anesthesia will be used, and the process will be more complicated.
In both cases, the area of the surgery is prepared, an incision made, and the section is removed. Stitches are used to close the incision again, and the operation is considered complete. The full process usually takes less than an hour.
The results of your biopsy will tell you and your doctor how to proceed with additional treatments.
Keeping Them Healthy
While your lymphatic system isn’t one you can quickly improve with a treadmill and free weights, there are ways to keep your lymph nodes and connecting vessels healthy and well-functioning. First, you must understand that the lymphatic system is almost like a second circulatory system.
Your blood vessels run all around your body and use the heart to pump the blood. Your lymphatic system runs right along with all of those blood vessels, but it doesn’t connect to the heart. Instead, the movement of your diaphragm – the muscle you use to breathe – keeps the fluid moving along the lymphatic vessels and into the lymph nodes.
Breathe deeply. The best thing you can do for your body is to keep the diaphragm moving well to encourage the regular movement of the fluids through the system. Take deep breaths that make your stomach move – that is the diaphragm working. Consider meditation, relaxation sessions, and even yoga to improve your deep breathing techniques. Belly laughs can also give your diaphragm a good workout – laugh until your belly hurts, and you’ll know you’ve moved lots of cleansing fluids through the system.
Keep moving. You don’t have to measure your heart rate to check your body’s hard work, but the vessels that connect and clean the lymph nodes are entangled with the biggest muscles in your body – your legs and arms. The more you move your muscles, the more the lymphatic system works to clean your cells.
Enjoy a healthy lifestyle and diet. Your lymphatic system cleanses waste from cells. The less waste there is to clean, the healthier all of your body systems will be. Live a healthy lifestyle and eat foods that help your heart and blood vessels. Since the vessels run alongside the heart’s vessels, a diet low in cholesterol will help keep all of the vessels flexible and working properly.