Neck Mass: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Patients or their family members may notice a mass on the neck, or one may be discovered during routine examination. A neck mass may be painless or painful depending on the cause. When a neck mass is painless, much time may pass before patients seek medical care.
There are many causes of neck mass, including infectious, cancerous, and congenital causes (see Table 3: Approach to the Patient With Nasal and Pharyngeal Symptoms: Some Causes of Neck Mass).
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The most common causes in younger patients include the following:
Reactive adenitis occurs in response to viral or bacterial infection somewhere in the oropharynx. Some systemic infections (eg, mononucleosis, HIV, TB) cause cervical lymph node enlargement—usually generalized rather than isolated.
Congenital disorders may cause a neck mass, typically longstanding. The most common are thyroglossal duct cysts, branchial cleft cysts, and dermoid or sebaceous cysts.
Cancerous masses are more common among older patients but may occur in younger ones. These masses may represent a local primary tumor or lymph node involvement from a local, regional, or distant primary cancer. About 60% of supraclavicular triangle masses are metastases from distant primary sites. Elsewhere in the neck, 80% of cancerous cervical adenopathy originates in the upper respiratory or alimentary tract. Likely sites of origin are the posterior-lateral border of the tongue and the floor of the mouth followed by the nasopharynx, palatine tonsil, laryngeal surface of the epiglottis, and hypopharynx, including the pyriform sinuses.
The thyroid gland may enlarge in various disorders, including simple nontoxic goiter (see Thyroid Disorders: Simple Nontoxic Goiter), subacute thyroiditis (see Thyroid Disorders: Subacute Thyroiditis), and, less often, thyroid cancer (see Thyroid Disorders: Thyroid Cancers).
A submandibular salivary gland can enlarge if it is blocked by a stone, becomes infected, or develops a cancer.
History of present illness should note how long the mass has been present and whether it is painful. Important associated acute symptoms include sore throat, URI symptoms, and toothache.
Review of systems should ask about difficulty swallowing or speaking and symptoms of chronic disease (eg, fever, weight loss, malaise). Regional and distant cancers causing metastases to the neck occasionally cause symptoms in their system of origin (eg, cough in lung cancer, swallowing difficulty in esophageal cancer). Because numerous cancers can metastasize to the neck, a complete review of systems is important to help identify a source.
Past medical history should inquire about known HIV or TB and risk factors for them. Risk factors for cancer are assessed, including consumption of alcohol or use of tobacco (particularly snuff or chewing tobacco), ill-fitting dental appliances, and chronic oral candidiasis. Poor oral hygiene also may be a risk.
The neck mass is palpated to determine consistency (ie, whether soft and fluctuant, rubbery, or hard) and presence and degree of tenderness. Whether the mass is freely mobile or appears fixed to the skin or underlying tissue also needs to be determined.
The scalp, ears, nasal cavities, oral cavity, nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx are closely inspected for signs of infection and any other visible lesions. Teeth are percussed to detect the exquisite tenderness of root infection. The base of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and the thyroid and salivary glands are palpated for masses.
The breasts and prostate gland are palpated for masses, and the spleen is palpated for enlargement. Stool is checked for occult blood, suggestive of a GI cancer.
Other lymph nodes are palpated (eg, axillary, inguinal).
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings
Important differentiating factors for a neck mass (see also Table 3: Approach to the Patient With Nasal and Pharyngeal Symptoms: Some Causes of Neck Mass) include acuity, pain and tenderness, and consistency and mobility.
A new mass (ie, developing over only a few days), particularly after symptoms of a URI or pharyngitis, suggests benign reactive lymphadenopathy. An acute tender mass suggests lymphadenitis or an infected dermoid cyst.
A chronic mass in younger patients suggests a cyst. A non-midline mass in older patients, particularly those with risk factors, should be considered cancer until proven otherwise; a midline mass is likely of thyroid origin (benign or malignant).
Pain, tenderness, or both in the mass suggest inflammation (particularly infectious), whereas a painless mass suggests a cyst or tumor. A hard, fixed, nontender mass suggests cancer, whereas rubbery consistency and mobility suggest otherwise.
Generalized adenopathy and splenomegaly suggest infectious mononucleosis or a lymphoreticular cancer. Generalized adenopathy alone may suggest HIV infection, particularly in those with risk factors.
Red and white mucosal patches (erythroplakia and leukoplakia) in the oropharynx may be malignant lesions responsible for the neck mass.
Difficulty swallowing may be noted with thyroid enlargement or cancer originating in various sites in the neck. Difficulty speaking suggests a cancer involving the larynx or recurrent laryngeal nerve.
If the nature of the mass is readily apparent (eg, lymphadenopathy caused by recent pharyngitis) or is in a healthy young patient with a recent, tender swelling and no other findings, then no immediate testing is required. However, the patient is reexamined regularly; if the mass fails to resolve, further evaluation is needed.
Most other patients should have a CBC and chest x-ray. Those with findings suggesting specific causes should also have testing for those disorders (see Table 3: Approach to the Patient With Nasal and Pharyngeal Symptoms: Some Causes of Neck Mass).
If examination reveals an oral or nasopharyngeal lesion that fails to begin resolving within 2 wk, testing may include CT or MRI and fine-needle biopsy of that lesion.
In young patients with no risk factors for head and neck cancer and no other apparent lesions, the neck mass may be biopsied.
Older patients, particularly those with risk factors for cancer, should first undergo further testing to identify the primary site; biopsy of the neck mass may simply reveal undifferentiated squamous cell carcinoma without illuminating the source. Such patients should have direct laryngoscopy, bronchoscopy, and esophagoscopy with biopsy of all suspicious areas. CT of the head, neck, and chest and possibly a thyroid scan are done. If a primary tumor is not found, fine-needle aspiration biopsy of the neck mass should be done, which is preferable to an incisional biopsy because it does not leave a transected mass in the neck. If the neck mass is cancerous and a primary tumor has not been identified, random biopsy of the nasopharynx, palatine tonsils, and base of the tongue should be considered.
Treatment is directed at the cause.
Last full review/revision July 2012 by Marvin P. Fried, MD