A number of masses may develop in the head and neck, and these may also be called growths, tumors, lumps, and bumps. While some head and neck masses are cancerous, many are not; it is important to see a physician if any abnormal bump or structure persists for more than two weeks. If a cancer is present, earlier detection provides the highest chance of successful treatment.
There are numerous causes of head and neck masses.
Enlargement of lymph nodes – this is the most common cause of new neck masses. Lymph nodes, which are part of the immune system, can enlarge when the body rallies to fight an infection. When the infection recedes, lymph swelling subsides as well.
Benign lesions – Benign masses do not spread (metastasize) to surrounding tissue and are not cancerous. Nevertheless, benign masses can be serious if they impact nerves or exert pressure in the head and neck, and are often removed surgically. These include cysts, thyroid masses, vascular masses, salivary gland masses, and others. Please see neckcyst1.htm for information on Congenital Neck Cysts in Children.
Cancers – Head and neck masses are malignant, or cancerous, if they spread to surrounding tissue. In the head and neck, tumors may be either primary or secondary.
Primary tumors originate in the head or neck itself, including the thyroid, throat, larynx, salivary gland, brain, or other locations. Primary tumors of the head and neck typically spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. About 90% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use, and the deaths from these cancers are largely preventable. Cancers of the mouth and throat are nearly nonexistent in adults who do not smoke or drink. People who have been exposed to radiation, either during medical treatments as children (common in decades past) or from nuclear radiation sources, are at considerable risk for thyroid cancer and should be screened yearly.
Secondary cancers are tumors that have spread from primary tumors in other parts of the body to the head or neck. Most often, secondary tumors of the neck originate in the lung, breast, kidney, or from melanomas in the skin. Cancers in the nasal and sinus passages may spread to the brain through nerves in the skull.
You should see your physician if you experience any of the following symptoms:
Examination of some masses may allow a physician to determine their cause based on location, size, and consistency. In other cases, however, additional tests may be required, such as
Treatments are determined by the cause of the mass. Benign neck cysts and masses are usually removed by surgical excision. Head and neck cancers may be treated by some combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, depending on their nature.
Read about Research on Head and Neck Oncology currently underway in our department.