What Is Axillary Lymphadenopathy?

Clara Kedrek

Axillary lymphadenopathy is a condition in which the lymph nodes of the axillary region — commonly known as the armpit — are enlarged. The condition can be diagnosed on the basis of a physical exam or imaging studies. Symptoms may include pain or swelling in the armpit. The cause of the lymphadenopathy can be diagnosed using laboratory studies and by taking a biopsy of the enlarged lymph tissue. Some common causes of the condition include cancer, infection, or trauma.

Enlarged lymph nodes can sometimes be identified on CT scans.
Enlarged lymph nodes can sometimes be identified on CT scans.

A diagnosis of axillary lymphadenopathy is typically made after the discovery of lumps or bumps in the axillary region. Sometimes patients might notice these lumps on their own. In other cases, doctors or other health care professionals might make the diagnosis on the basis of a comprehensive physical exam. Sometimes, the enlarged lymph nodes can be identified on imaging studies such as computed tomography (CT) scans.

Pain and swelling in the armpit are among the symptoms of axillary lymphadenopathy.
Pain and swelling in the armpit are among the symptoms of axillary lymphadenopathy.

While some patients have symptoms associated with axillary lymphadenopathy, others have no symptoms. Patients might have tenderness or pain in the region of the enlarged lymph node. In other cases, the swelling and enlargement could be painless.

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The lymphatic system, shown in green.
The lymphatic system, shown in green.

Finding axillary adenopathy in a patient is important because it serves as a clue that could point towards the diagnosis of an underlying disease. Patients who develop this condition should undergo routine lab work to evaluate for underlying systemic diseases, as lymph nodes play a critical role in the body's immune system. Often, patients with large lymph nodes undergo a biopsy in which a needle is used to take a sample of the node. Examining the tissue using a microscope can provide critical clues as to why the lymph node enlargement occurred.

Fever is a potential warning sign of an infection, a common cause of axillary lymphadenopathy.
Fever is a potential warning sign of an infection, a common cause of axillary lymphadenopathy.

Various types of cancer can cause axillary lymphadenopathy. Breast cancer is one of the common causes of this physical exam finding. This occurs because the lymphatic system of the breast drains into the axillary region, and cancer tends to spread along this pathway. Cancers of the immune system, including lymphoma and leukemia, can also cause enlarged lymph nodes in this region of the body. Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, is yet another cause of this symptom.

Many infections such as cat scratch disease can cause enlarged lymph nodes.
Many infections such as cat scratch disease can cause enlarged lymph nodes.

Another group of disorders that can cause axillary lymphadenopathy are infections. Systemic diseases, such as infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) can cause generalized lymphadenopathy that includes the axillary region. More localized infections can also cause this symptom. These can include cat scratch disease, sporotrichosis, and bacterial infections.

Examining the tissue using a microscope can provide critical clues as to why the lymph node enlargement occurred.
Examining the tissue using a microscope can provide critical clues as to why the lymph node enlargement occurred.
The discovery of axillary lymphadenopathy may prompt the doctor to order a mammogram to rule out breast cancer.
The discovery of axillary lymphadenopathy may prompt the doctor to order a mammogram to rule out breast cancer.

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