Noticing a new lump or bump on your body can be alarming at first. A neck mass may be swollen, tender, soft, or solid. Many of these lumps are harmless, but always get checked by your doctor or healthcare provider to be sure.
In this article, we’ll cover the most common causes of lumps in the neck and which important warning signs to watch for. We’ll also share when to see a doctor or other medical professional.
Lump on Back of Neck Possible Causes
Some lumps are congenital, meaning they are present from birth. These and many lumps are considered benign, or non-cancerous.
Many causes of neck lumps are easily resolved or go away on their own.
Some common causes of a lump on the back of the neck include:
- Thyroglossal duct cyst: These cysts can form while the fetus is still in the womb and present as small round or oval lumps or masses in the neck area of a child. They often go undetected until they are swollen or infected. Surgery under anesthesia is required to remove a thyroglossal duct cyst.
- Common cold: Lymph nodes behind your ears often swell during a cold or flu while fighting the infection. It may feel like a strange lump or lumps, but healthy lymph nodes will reduce in size once you’ve recovered.
- A lipoma, or benign tumor: This is a non-cancerous growth of cells that won’t spread to other parts of the body. Treatment isn’t necessary unless it begins causing discomfort or pain.
- Salivary gland infection: Salivary glands can swell and become painful if infected. It might feel like swollen lumps near the ears or under the jaw. Your doctor or healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for these infections.
- Dermoid cyst: This cyst is a build-up of tissue in a pocket or area under the skin. The mass may or may not be visible from birth. Dermoid cysts are likely to grow over time and are typically removed when found if the child is at least 6 months old and otherwise healthy.
More Serious Causes
There is potential for a bump or lump on the neck to come from a more serious issue. While these are rarer causes, they are also important to watch out for.
Occasionally, a mass with an unknown cause develops on a thyroid gland, which can affect hormone levels that the thyroid controls. These are referred to as thyroid nodules.
The development of these malignant or benign lumps isn’t well understood and may require an in-depth examination to determine a diagnosis. Often, the patient will be referred to a doctor who specializes in hormone-related diagnoses, known as an endocrinologist.
Treatment, depending on whether the neck mass is cancerous or not, may be determined with assistance from endocrinologists, surgeons, nurses and other health care team members.
Diagnosis of lymphadenitis typically consists of a biopsy or blood test, where some of the tissue or blood is taken from the area for analysis. Getting a diagnosis quickly is crucial, as lymphadenitis, if left untreated, can lead to sepsis.
Sepsis is an infection in the blood that can cause death if not treated promptly. Treatments for lymphadenitis depend on the diagnosis, but may or may not include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicine, or surgery.
Sjögren’s Syndrome can put your salivary and other glands in the neck at a higher risk for infection. Repeated infections or swollen glands may be an indication of Sjogren’s Syndrome.
This autoimmune disorder causes the patient’s immune system to attack healthy cells in specific areas like these glands. It’s not curable but symptoms can be managed after diagnosis. The most common symptoms of dry mouth and eyes are treated with extra hydration or medication that encourages saliva production.
Rarely, swollen lymph nodes are an indicator of lung cancer. This is a sign that can help identify cancer early for better treatment and prognosis. In this case, the cancer often begins in the breathing tubes, spreading to other parts of the body like your lymph nodes.
Swollen nodes might be accompanied by shortness of breath or a persistent cough, among other symptoms. Treatment for lung cancer has higher success rates when the cancer is diagnosed in earlier stages. Potential treatments include a variety of non-surgical methods or minimally invasive surgery.
Cancerous Neck Lump Diagnosis
If a lump on the back of the neck is not benign (harmless), it is malignant, meaning it’s cancerous. There are many organs at work in your neck, each of which has the potential to grow malignant cells.
Most often, cancers around the neck and head begin in the cells that line surfaces like the inside of your mouth, throat, nose, and voice box.
Cancers can form in the following areas of the head and neck:
- Oral cavity, including the lips, gums, mouth and cheek lining, under the tongue
- Throat (pharynx), including the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx
- Voice box (larynx), which contains the vocal cords
- Paranasal sinuses, or hollow spaces in bones near the nose
- Nasal cavity or inside of the nose
- Salivary glands, both major and minor
Thyroid cancer can be indicated by a swollen thyroid gland, which might feel like a swollen lump near your neck or jaw. Different types of thyroid cancers have different prognoses and treatment options.
Risk factors for thyroid cancer include being female, between the ages of 25 and 65, having exposure to radiation as a child or from radioactive fallout, having a history of an enlarged thyroid, a family history of thyroid disease, and certain genetic factors.
Skin cancers can be present on your neck and look like small bumps that resemble skin tags or moles. These can form in places often exposed to sunlight such as the back of your neck.
Cancer found in the outer layers of your skin is called squamous cell skin cancer or squamous cell carcinoma while cancer found in the deeper layers of your skin is called basal cell skin cancers or basal cell carcinomas.
The third type of skin cancer is called melanoma skin cancer, which develops when melanocyte cells begin growing out of control.
Melanocyte cells give your skin its pigment, so an overgrowth may look like a small dark mole. This is a less common type of skin cancer, but more dangerous because of its potential to spread.
The neck is a common area for melanomas to develop, so if you see an unusual mole or dark spot, get it checked by your doctor. To diagnose these types of cancers, a doctor or health professional may perform examinations of the patient’s neck, lump, bump or surrounding area, and blood sample.
Depending on the features and location of the neck mass, the diagnosis may include a laryngoscopy, where the doctor uses a mirrored tool or laryngoscope to check your vocal cords.
After a cancer diagnosis, factors for additional treatment options are considered by your medical team and discussed. Some common treatments for cancers around the head and neck include radiation or chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.
Treatments may also be combined or modified depending on your health needs and the type of cancer involved.
Signs to be on the Lookout
When you see a doctor or other healthcare professional, the location and feel of the bump will help them decide on the next step for your work up.
Some symptoms of head and neck cancers to look out for include:
- Pain when swallowing
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- Growth or swelling in the jaw or jawbone
- Sinuses that are blocked and won’t clear
- Frequent nose bleeds
- Pain in the upper teeth
- Pain in the face, chin, or neck that does not go away
Specific signs of thyroid cancer include an abnormal lump or swelling on the neck along with:
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain when swallowing
- Hoarseness in the voice
Certain risk factors increase your likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. An abnormal neck mass is more likely to be cancerous if you’re over the age of 40.
Cancer death rates have fallen continuously since 1991 due to improvements in detection and treatment along with other factors. If you suspect symptoms of cancer around your head or neck, get checked sooner rather than later.
When to See a Doctor or other Medical Professional
Some symptoms indicate the need for an examination.
If you have any of the following, make an appointment with a doctor or other medical professional:
- The lump is growing
- The lump feels hard or immovable
- The lump and/or area is painful, or tender
- The lump is red, itchy and/or inflamed
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Cancer Statistics, 2021 (2021)
Head and Neck Cancers (2021)
Lung Cancer (2022)
Management of Lateral Neck Masses in Adults (2000)
What Is Melanoma Skin Cancer? (2019)
Neck Masses (2022)
Sjögren's Syndrome (2018)
Thyroid Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version (2022)
What Are Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers? (2019)
What Is That Lump? (2022)