If you experience a mass, a lump, or swelling in your neck, there may be a number of different causes. The neck is a complex part of your body that includes many muscles, tissues, and organs. A mass in the neck may be caused by problems in the:
Glands: lymph nodes, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, salivary glands, tonsils
Other Organs: voicebox (larynx), windpipe (trachea)
Nerves: recurrent laryngeal nerves, sympathetic nerves, parasympathetic nerves, brachial plexus
Some common causes of a mass in the neck are listed below, but there are many reasons you may develop one. A lump in the neck may also originate in the cervical spine, arteries, veins, skin, or muscles. A qualified ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can help diagnose the cause of a mass in the neck.
Viral and bacterial infections are some of the most common causes of a lump or mass in the neck, because the lymph nodes (or lymph glands) often become enlarged when the body is fighting infections. This can include the common cold or flu, ear infections, sinusitis, strep throat, E. Coli infections, tonsilitis, and mononucleosis (mono). Strep throat and other viruses, like the mumps, can also cause the salivary glands to swell, leading to a mass in neck. While many infections causing swelling or a mass in the neck may be common illnesses, other more serious or uncommon infections, such as HIV, herpes, or tuberculosis, can also lead to a mass in the neck from swollen lymph nodes or salivary glands.
If swollen lymph nodes from infection are the cause of your neck mass, you may feel enlarged lumps on either side of your neck. They may be the size of a pea or a grape and feel tender. Swallowing or moving your neck may be painful, or you may experience referred pain in your ear. Fever is another common sign of infection. Keep track of any other symptoms you experience so that your doctor can determine if an infection is the cause of the mass in your neck.
A non-cancerous (benign) tumor from an overgrowth of fat cells is called a lipoma. A lipoma in the neck may look like a mass or lump. It may be soft and move under the skin when pressed. Lipomas may be harmless but some people choose to have a lipoma surgically removed because it causes pain, discomfort, or for cosmetic reasons.
Thyroid Gland Disorders
Goiters are most commonly caused by iodine deficiency, but they can also be caused by problems with thyroid hormone production. A goiter can cause swelling or a large mass at the base of your neck, due to the enlargement of the thyroid gland. Other symptoms of goiter may be a sensation of tightness in the throat, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or voice changes.
Sometimes a neck mass may mean benign (noncancerous) thyroid nodules, lumps that can form within the thyroid gland due to cysts, chronic inflammation, or overgrowth of thyroid tissue, among other causes. Nodules can lead to discomfort, trouble breathing or swallowing, or hyperthyroidism, the overproduction of thyroid hormone
Cancer is a possible cause for a mass in the neck, with your risk increasing after age 50, from regular use of alcohol and tobacco, and if you have human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
There are a number of different types of cancer that may have a mass or lump in the neck as a symptom, including:
- thyroid cancer
- Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- lung cancer
- throat cancer
- breast cancer
- basal cell carcinoma, melanoma, and other skin cancers
- other cancers in tissues of the head and neck.
Depending on the type of cancer, there may be other symptoms, including skin changes on the neck, difficulty swallowing, weight loss, and voice changes.
What to do if you develop a mass in the neck
In addition to the conditions reviewed here, there can be other causes of a mass or lump in the neck, including injury, autoimmune disease, or even allergic reaction. A mass in the neck is a symptom of an illness, not an illness in itself, so treatment will vary depending on the cause. Because some causes for a mass or lump in the neck are so serious, it’s important not to ignore it.
Sometimes medications, such as antibiotics, may be an effective treatment for a neck mass or lump if your doctor is certain it is caused only by infection, while some conditions may require head and neck surgery, thyroid surgery, or other treatments.
For many illnesses, including those that result in a mass in the neck, the earlier a condition is diagnosed, the more effective treatment may be. If you discover a mass in your neck, contact us today for a consultation.