Neck Lumps and Bumps: What Do They Mean?

Shahid Iquebal   by Shahid Iquebal, M.Pharm.    Last updated on October 3, 2019,

lump on neck


What is a lump on neck (bump on neck)?

A Lump on neck  or a bump on neck is the presence of abnormal mass in your neck. It is also called as neck mass. Lumps on neck are quite common and they can develop as a result of many possible causes. A lump on neck may arise from the skin or from structures underneath. Usually, these lumps are discovered by your doctor during an examination.

The lump on neck or neck bumps can be painful depending on what causes them. Generally, a painless lump on neck is present for a long time before you notice it.

The lump on neck usually varies in its shape and size. It can be large and visible, or may be very small. Most neck lumps are harmless and benign, or noncancerous in nature. But it can be a sign of serious condition as well, in some cases. It may be due to an infection or a cancerous growth. However, vast majority of lumps on neck are not cancer, particularly in children and younger adults.

By far, the most likely cause of presence of a lump on neck is a swollen lymph node, also known as a lymph gland. There are more than 100 lymph nodes in your neck. Most of the time you don't know they are there and you can't feel them. In case of any infection, or inflammation, they become enlarged as they are part of the mechanism by which your body reacts.

If you notice a lump on neck  or an unexplained neck mass, you should visit your doctor immediately. Your doctor should examine and evaluate it promptly to rule out any possibility of it being cancerous.

More: Lump near anus and swellings around anus

Is there any symptom of neck lumps?

A lump on neck does not show any kind of visible symptom and can be innocuous for a long time. It may show no symptom at all. With time, it becomes large and tender, and then begins to produce some pressure around the tissues and cause related symptoms. For example, a thyroid swelling may exert pressure on the oesophagus or trachea which can result in difficulty in swallowing and shortness of breath respectively.

Some neck lumps which are malignant in nature and have spread from a tumour elsewhere in the body may show some symptoms from their primary site such as pain on swallowing, difficulty in swallowing, change in the voice or referred pain such as earache.

Sometimes, these malignant lumps may cause damage to localised nerves, and can result in a facial palsy in case of malignant parotid swellings.

What are the various causes of a lump on neck?

A lump on neck can be of varying hardness and can be either tender or non-tender. Lumps on the neck can be found in various locations such as side of the neck – either left or right side of the neck, base of the neck, under jaw and chin in the neck. It can be located in or under the skin, as in a sebaceous cyst, cystic acne, or lipoma. A lipoma is a benign fatty growth. A lump on your neck may also originate from tissues and organs within your neck.

The place of origination of lump plays an important role in determining what it is. There are large numbers of muscles, tissues and organs near your neck from which a lump can originate, including:

  • neck muscles
  • the lymph nodes
  • the thyroid gland
  • parathyroid glands
  • recurrent laryngeal nerves
  • the trachea, or windpipe
  • the larynx, or voice box
  • cervical vertebrae
  • nerves of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
  • the brachial plexus, which is a series of nerves that supply your upper limbs and trapezius muscle
  • salivary glands

The most common cause of a lump on the neck is an enlarged lymph node. Lymph nodes are collection of cells that help your body to fight infections and attack malignant cells, or cancer. When you are not well or sick or when you get infected, your lymph nodes become enlarged to help the body in fighting the infection. There are many other reasons which can cause a lymph node to get enlarged such as:

  • ear infections
  • sinus infections
  • tonsillitis
  • strep throat
  • dental infections
  • bacterial infections of the scalp

A lump on your neck can also be the result of some other illnesses such as:

  • Viruses, such as mumps, can make your salivary glands enlarged
  • Autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other disorders or problems of the thyroid gland, such as goiter (caused by iodine deficiency) can cause enlargement of thyroid gland
  • An Injury or torticollis may cause a lump in neck muscles

Cancerous lump on neck

Although, most of the lumps of the neck are benign in nature but cancerous (malignant) lumps on neck are more common among older people, though they may occur in younger people as well.

A lump in neck can also be the consequence of a cancer of a nearby structure, such as the mouth or throat that has grown into the neck. Read about esophageal cancer.

It is also possible that a lump on neck is a cancerous lymph node, which occurred due to metastasis of the cancer from a nearby structure or from the distant part of the body or when the cancer arises in the lymphatic system itself also known as lymphoma. A very characteristic feature of a cancerous lump is that it is not painful or tender to the touch and often is stone-hard.

Types of lump on neck

The type of lump on your neck  usually describes the part of your neck where the lump is located:

Lump on back of neck

The lump on back of neck is not very serious in most cases. Majority of lipomas are found in this region of your neck and may have been present for quite some time. Lumps due to cyst or lumps due to other skin-related pathologies may also be found at the back of the neck.

Occasionally a lymph node associated with the skin or hair of the scalp may also be found on the back of the neck. A lump on back of neck may not always be serious.

Lump on side of  neck

You should not ignore lumps on the side of the neck for a period longer than a month without being investigated. These lumps have higher probability of being malignant and should be treated with suspicion, particularly in smokers over the age of thirty. Lump on neck can be found on both sides of your neck. You may have a lump on left side of neck or a lump on right side of neck.

Lump on front of neck

Generally, a lump on front of neck is related to the thyroid gland. Majority of such lumps on front of neck are benign but occasionally they can be malignant, so a through diagnosis should be performed.

In younger population, thyroid descent represents itself as lump on the front of neck which is a developmental anomaly also known as a thyroglossal cyst.

Lump on neck behind ear

Lumps which are located just under your ear are often the representation of a lump in the parotid gland. These are benign in nature but may need surgical intervention to remove them. These lumps should be investigated and diagnosed by a head and neck surgeon who, with the help of an expert radiologist and cytologist, can give correct diagnosis and decide a management plan for the patient if they are found to be of serious nature. A lump on neck behind ear may present itself during an examination.

Lump in neck under jaw

A Lump in neck under jaw is generally an enlarged lymph node associated with infection or inflammation. Most of the lumps in neck under jaw are benign. However, sometimes, a malignant lump in neck under jaw may be present in this area that is spread from a head and neck cancer or a lymphoma.

More: Thyroid Pain: What Does Thyroid Pain Fee Like?

What does it mean to have a tender lump on neck?

Tender lumps are usually results or representations of infective or inflamed areas. However, a tender lump should be diagnosed properly and a full history should be taken to rule out any worrying pathology.

A proper examination of the cause of infection should also be made in case of any appearance of a tender lump on the neck.

What does it mean to have a movable lump in neck?

Sometimes, you may feel a movable lump in neck which may or may not have pain associated with it. In most of the cases of a movable lump in neck, they are often found to be benign. This kind of mobile or movable lump in the neck may represent a lymph node, but it can also be associated with other structures in the neck such as the thyroid, parotid or submandibular glands.

Movable lumps in the neck can also represent a pathology that is developmental in its origin. A movable lump in the neck is located in specific positions in the neck.

What does a small, pea sized lump in neck mean?

Lumps on neck can be found in varying size, from tiny, small lumps to huge lumps. Very small lump or a pea sized lump in neck is hard to diagnose. If a lump is changing its size by increasing itself, and is associated with smoking or upper aerodigestive tract symptoms, then it should be investigated on urgent priority.

If the lump is persistent, a history and examination will need to be taken. Location and position of the lump is also important as it may improve the diagnostic accuracy by knowing which structure is involved in it.

Read Also: Painful Lump in Armpit

What does a hard lump in neck mean? Is a hard lump in neck always a cancer?

Lumps can be soft and hard. However, a hard lump in neck is often representative of its malignant character and pathology. If the lump presence is coupled with symptoms such as pain while swallowing, a change in voice, or a difficulty in swallowing and earache, it should be investigated immediately, especially when the person is a smoker.

However, quite a few times, an inflammatory lump can also be present as a hard lump in neck. So a proper and definitive diagnosis is important to differentiate between a malignant and an inflammatory lump. 

Shahid Iquebal

Shahid is a pharmacologist with masters in pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacology. In the past, he worked for Maxinov Healthcare Research Division and R.P Biotech. At DiseaseFix, he is a content guide and writer. He is also associated as a researcher with Integrated Resources Pvt Ltd. currently. Shahid’s areas of interests include cellular and molecular pharmacology, pre-clinical screening, and systemic and clinical Pharmacology.

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