What a Lump on Your Neck Means
Did you know that simply looking at your neck can provide lifesaving clues to hidden health issues? It’s true! Stand in front of the mirror and give your neck a thorough once-over. Strange lumps or bumps, changes in your veins, and anything that looks unusual, new, or prominent should be brought to your doctor’s attention. We asked Mark A. Varvares, MD, FACS, associate chair of otolaryngology and professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, to help identify seven symptoms you might see when you check your neck and what conditions they may be related to. Don’t panic — be proactive!
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A visible lump at the base of your neck.
This could indicate a thyroid node or mass. “You really should not be able to see your thyroid gland at all — there’s not a lot of tissue there,” says Dr. Varvares. “Any lump you see low down on your neck, off midline — meaning to the left or right of the center of your neck — may represent a thyroid mass.” The vast majority of thyroid masses are benign, but very large ones (called goiters) can affect swallowing, cause airway compression, and make breathing more difficult, he adds. If you have any of those symptoms, you should see your doctor.
A bulging vein.
If it looks like a length of rope on one side of your neck, you could have jugular vein distress. That can be caused by heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, an infection, or heart valve stenosis. “You should not be able to really see your veins, meaning they should not be very, very pronounced,” Dr. Varvares explains. “If you have a distended neck vein, it could indicate superior vena cava syndrome. When accompanied by a mass on the upper chest, bulging veins could mean right-side heart failure because blood backs up into the veins.”
A wide neck.
If your neck is wide — measuring over 17 inches for a man and over 16 inches for a woman — you’re at higher risk for sleep apnea. “A short, thick neck if you snore means you need a sleep study,” advises Dr. Varvares. “Ask the person who sleeps next to you if snore — you could have obstructive sleep apnea.” If you do, treatment such as a CPAP machine or surgery will help solve the problem.
A swollen lymph node under the angle of your jaw.
This could be indicate an HPV-related cancer. “Oral cancer related to HPV has increased an estimated 225% over prior decades now,” says Dr. Varvares. “The first sign can be a lump in the neck right below the angle of the jaw. Usually you have no pain.” This kind of tumor typically starts in the mouth, but when the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it becomes visible in the neck.
A lymph node anywhere in your neck that’s bigger than a golf ball.
Lymph nodes can normally measure about 1.5 centimeters, but if it’s bigger than a golf ball, you need to get it checked out. “It will feel like a water balloon when you move it around,” Dr. Varvares says. “That could indicate a potentially cancerous mass.”
A swollen lymph node that doesn’t go away after a dental visit.
“A dental cleaning can cause your lymph nodes to swell,” says Dr. Varvares. “You know how the dentist scrapes your teeth clean? The bacteria that’s being removed can get into your bloodstream and cause this problem temporarily.” The swelling should go down within two weeks. If not, that’s the time frame in which to see a doctor to ensure you don’t have an infection.
A throbbing pulse.
If you have other symptoms such as breathlessness or feeling faint, call 911 — you could be dealing with a heart issue, such as aortic insufficiency. That means your aortic valve is leaking, and your heart is working harder than it should be. A visible neck pulse when your heart rate is resting is another red flag to call your doctor about ASAP. “That could also indicate a carotid artery tumor,” Dr. Varvares says. “You may also see a firm mass in the upper neck.”
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