Neck Lumps

A lump in the neck usually means just one thing to a patient: Cancer. This is rarely the cause in practice, and a careful examination and explanation can be more anxiolytic than a bucket-load of benzodiazepines. Occasionally, further investigation is needed. For a more detailed analysis of ‘Swollen glands’, including cervical glands, see the ‘Swollen glands’ section.

Published: 2nd August 2022 | Updated: 15th August 2022

Differential diagnosis

Common Diagnoses

  • Reactive Lymphadenitis Due to a Local Infection
  • Prominent Normal Lymph Nodes
  • Goitre
  • Sebaceous Cyst
  • Thyroglossal Cyst

Occasional Diagnoses

  • Thyroid Carcinoma
  • Branchial Cyst
  • Pharyngeal Pouch
  • Cervical Rib
  • Primary Lymphoma or Secondary Neoplastic Metastasis

Rare Diagnoses

  • Tuberculosis of Cervical Lymph Nodes (King’s Evil; Scrofula)
  • Actinomycosis
  • Carotid Body Tumour or Aneurysm
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Cystic Hygroma

Ready reckoner

Key distinguishing features of the most common diagnoses

LymphadenitisNormal NodesGoitreSebaceous CystThyroglossal Cyst
Other SymptomsYesNoPossibleNoNo
Moves with SwallowingNoNoYesNoYes
Fixed to SkinNoNoNoYesNo

Possible investigations

Likely: TFTs if thyroid swelling.

Possible: FBC, ESR/CRP, CXR.

Small Print: Thyroid ultrasound, radioisotope studies, barium swallow, biopsy.

  • TFT in all cases of thyroid enlargement: May reveal hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
  • FBC and ESR/CRP in persistent enlarged nodes: Check WCC and investigate further if abnormal or if ESR/CRP high.
  • CXR: May reveal primary lung carcinoma, lymphoma or other more obscure pathologies.
  • Thyroid ultrasound and/or radioisotope studies if lump felt within the thyroid – usually arranged by endocrinologist after referral.
  • Barium swallow: To confirm and outline a pharyngeal pouch.
  • Biopsy: Specialist procedure to establish nature of a persistent, suspicious neck lump.

Top Tips

  • Establish the patient’s concerns – cancer fear is common with this symptom.
  • Unless the lump is obviously suspicious, employ the ‘diagnostic use of time’ – a judicious delay often resolves the problem, or it may reveal the true diagnosis.
  • Children with normal or reactive neck glands are often presented by anxious parents. Take time to explain the nature of the problem to properly allay fears and prevent inappropriate repeat attendances.

Red Flags

  • A neoplastic-type lymph node enlargement – usually involving a single, gradually enlarging and non-tender node – without any obvious cause should be referred urgently for detailed ENT assessment.
  • Dysphagia with a neck lump is a serious symptom unless associated with a transient sore throat. Further investigation by endoscopy is necessary.
  • Beware of a hard swelling developing rapidly in the thyroid – carcinoma must be excluded.
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Website disclaimer

Pulse Reference is based on the best-selling book Symptom Sorter.

The experts behind Pulse Reference are Dr Keith Hopcroft who is the co-author of Symptom Sorter, a GP in Essex and Pulse’s editorial advisor and Dr Poppy Freeman, a GP in Camden and also a clinical advisor to Pulse.

This website is for clinical guidance only and cannot give definitive diagnostic information. Practitioners should work within the limits of their individual professional practice, seek guidance when necessary and refer appropriately.