What are Axillary Lymph Nodes?

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  • Written By: Carey Reeve
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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Lymph nodes are small organs that are part of the lymphatic system and are grouped in several areas in the body, such as the neck and the groin. Axillary lymph nodes are those that are located in the arm pit, also called the axilla. The lymphatic system is the complement to the circulatory system, and the nodes are where lymph fluid collects and is filtered as it moves toward the point where it re-enters the bloodstream.

Axillary lymph nodes are broken down into several sub-groups. The apical lymph nodes are in the area above the shoulder near where it meets the neck. There are pectoral lymph nodes that are located in the chest and are associated with the mammary glands and subscapular lymph nodes that are in the upper back. Lateral lymph nodes are at the top of the arm, and central lymph nodes are just below them in the chest.

These lymph nodes act as filters for the flow of lymph, a fluid found between cells in the body, and they are collectors of cancer cells, viruses and bacteria. Large numbers of white blood cells reside in each lymph node in order to attack these dangers as they are removed from circulation. When a lymph node gathers a significant amount of harmful material, white blood cells are created at a high rate and cause the node to swell.


Swelling can be caused by bacterial infections, vaccinations, viruses or allergic reactions to some medications. When swelling in any of the axillary lymph nodes occurs with any other symptoms of cancer, physicians pay close attention to family history and might do tests to rule out breast or lung cancer. When cancer cells are present in the lymph nodes, they are likely to feel more firm, to be fixed in place and not to be painful to the touch.

In the case that cancer already has been identified in a patient, the doctor is likely to remove several axillary lymph nodes, possibly during a mastectomy or lumpectomy, and have them examined for signs of cancerous cells. The surgery to remove the few lymph nodes where lymph from the breast flows first is called a sentinel node biopsy. If cancer cells are found in this procedure, the next step often is a full axillary dissection, which is the complete removal of all axillary lymph nodes on the affected side. This also will change the strength and duration of chemotherapy treatments following tumor removal.


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Post 4

Is there any real difference between axillary lymph nodes and the main lymph nodes?

My thought was that maybe the lymph nodes in the head and neck were larger for some reason and could handle more fluid. Can they all do the same functions, or are the axillary nodes somehow connected to the main lymph nodes in sort of a "pre-treatment" function?

I was also wondering about why lymph nodes are located where they are. It seems like most of them are in the upper body. Are there any that are in the lower part of our bodies? Even though the lymph nodes are closer to the heart, it still seems inefficient to have to have the white blood cells carry invaders all the way to the top of the body. Why is that?

Post 3

@titans62 - I think you're right as far as I know. Hopefully someone else will speak up if we're wrong. I know white blood cells start in the bone marrow and find foreign particles in the blood. As for the lymph nodes, I'm not sure if they are actually stored there or if that is just the drop off point for things to be destroyed.

Has anyone here ever had or known someone that has had a lymph node biopsy? I'm curious what the process is to check for cancer in lymph nodes. I know they are generally located pretty close to the skin. I guess that's why you can tell they are swollen.

To remove them, do they just make a small cut and take it out? What do the lymph nodes themselves look like? I've always imagined a white blob, but I'm not sure.

Post 2

@JimmyT - I know how you felt. For several years in a row when I was in high school and college, one of the lymph nodes under my chin would swell up every spring. Like you, it never happened when I was sick or anything. Maybe it meant that my body was able to fight off an infection before I noticed it.

This article has me wondering about where white blood cells come from. I know that there are several different types of white blood cells that all have specific jobs, but how are they formed? Aren't they made in the bone marrow like red blood cells and then stored in the lymph nodes, or is there more to it than that?

Post 1

When I was younger I had a swollen lymph on my neck. It sounds like that would have been one of the main lymph nodes instead of a swollen axillary lymph node. It can be a frightening experience if you don't know what the lump is. I didn't know that swollen lymph nodes could be caused by cancerous cells, either.

There wasn't any pain or discomfort, but the experience did get me some strange looks. Oddly, the swelling didn't really seem to be associated with me being sick or having any sort of infection. The doctor wasn't sure what caused it, but said it should be fine. The lump went away after about a week, and I haven't had any problems since.

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