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A neck lump, sometimes referred to as a neck mass, is any swelling which can be seen or felt in the neck. In most cases, a neck lump is found to be benign, or non-cancerous. Causes of neck lumps include swollen glands, abscesses, cysts and benign tumors, as well as cancer. Cancerous, or malignant, tumors are more likely to occur in older people.
Probably the most common sort of neck lump is a swollen gland, or lymph node. Lymph nodes often become swollen due to an infection, such as a virus affecting the throat, but occasionally the cause might be cancer. Infections generally go away by themselves in a couple of weeks or so, but a persistent lump should be investigated. Scans and X-rays may be taken, and a fine needle might be introduced into the neck lump to take a small sample. Any malignant lumps are dealt with by an oncology doctor, who specializes in cancer, and possible treatments include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
A neck lump located within the skin is often a harmless swelling, known as a sebaceous cyst. These do not usually need treatment, but are sometimes removed if they grow too large. Another type of neck cyst, known as a dermoid cyst, is present from birth and contains various tissues such as fat and hair. Fatty growths, called lipomas, can also appear in the skin of the neck. Both a dermoid cyst and a lipoma are typically benign and can be removed surgically.
Sometimes a salivary gland becomes enlarged, due to the formation of a stone that blocks the outlet duct. This can cause neck pain, felt at the beginning of a meal, because saliva is unable to flow, and there may be further pain if the gland becomes infected. Occasionally, an abscess can develop, leading to a person feeling generally unwell with a raised temperature. Stones may go away by themselves or can be removed using keyhole, or traditional, surgical techniques, and are sometimes broken up with shock waves. Rarely, a painless swelling of a salivary gland can be due to cancer, requiring referral to an oncology specialist.
Diseases of the thyroid gland occasionally cause a neck lump, which usually moves when a person swallows. Causes of generalized swelling include hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, and hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. Multiple nodules sometimes occur, which are usually benign, or a single nodule, which might be a cyst, a benign tumor, or, rarely, a form of cancer. An underactive thyroid is normally treated with replacement thyroid hormone, while an overactive thyroid can be treated using drugs, radioactive iodine which destroys thyroid cells, or surgery. Most thyroid lumps are benign, and may be removed or monitored over time, and even malignant lumps are often curable.