Swollen Lymph Nodes - Diagnosis

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How are swollen lymph nodes diagnosed?

Swollen lymph nodes closer to the surface of the body are generally diagnosed by a doctor's examination and feeling for areas known to have coalescence of lymph nodes, for example, swollen lymph nodes under the arms (axillary lymph nodes), swollen lymph nodes in the sides of the neck (cervical lymph nodes), or swollen lymph nodes in the groin (inguinal lymph nodes). These swollen lymph nodes can be seen and felt easily.

Other times, deeper lymph nodes could be seen on imaging studies, such as CT scan (computed tomography), of different parts of the body.

Tonsils in the back of the throat are also lymph nodes, and they are the most visible ones in the body.

Diagnosing the cause of swollen lymph nodes may be challenging at times. The most important component of evaluating a swollen lymph node is a thorough medical history and a complete physical examination by a doctor. The doctor may ask you about symptoms such as sore throat, fever and chills, fatigue, weight loss, a complete list of medications, sexual activity, vaccination history, recent travels, the patient's own and his/her family's previous history of cancers if any, and so forth.

A group of lymph nodes in a particular area of the body react to disturbances in that general region. If there is a specific infection in the region of the swollen lymph nodes, that may be the most likely cause of swelling. For instance, an infection of the leg or some sexually transmitted diseases can cause swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin area.

Physicians usually examine the lymph nodes by feeling them and characterize them based upon what the lymph nodes feel like. They could be characterized, for example, as:

  • Large or small
  • Tender or non-tender
  • Fixed or mobile
  • Hard or soft
  • Firm or rubbery

These characteristics can be useful in suggesting the cause of the lymph node swelling. For example, a hard, nontender, nonmoveable lymph node may be more characteristic of a cancer spread to that node. On the other hand, a soft, tender, moveable lymph node could more likely represent an infection.

If the enlarged lymph nodes are suspected to be related to a cancer, then a biopsy of the lymph node may determine the cancer type. For example, a swollen lymph node around the collar bone (supraclavicular lymph node), may signify lung cancer in a person who may have other clinical clues suggestive of lung cancer.

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See what others are saying

Comment from: DNJ4EVR, 45-54 Male (Caregiver) Published: January 29

My husband had severe pain in his right groin. He then developed a fever that, in total, lasted 2 weeks, up and down along with night sweats. His fever would spike in the evening. Most days he could go to work, but felt awful. Almost immediately after the fever he developed a lump in his groin where the severe pain was located and it was getting worse. We then decided to go to the emergency room. They felt it was a swollen lymph node and viral and would take care of itself. Well, it did not subside and we decided to go to our family doctor who felt it was infection and put him on a strong antibiotic. This did nothing and he developed abdominal pain and vomiting which sent him to the emergency room again. They admitted him and did more testing as they couldn't find a cause. A team of oncologists figured it was either infectious or cancer and decided to remove the lymph. The surgeon said that the lymph node was a mess and just fell apart upon removal. He was in the hospital for 5 days and when the pathology report came back we found out that it was not cancer but was infectious and the results were almost conclusive of cat scratch disease. He did have a puncture wound from our kitten on his right foot that wouldn't heal, but we never linked the two together. He is feeling much better now and on the mend.

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Comment from: Jay, 65-74 Male (Patient) Published: April 11

I have had two types of cancer, colon and pancreatic. One third of my colon was removed in 2005 and I had Whipple surgery for the pancreatic cancer on 12/30/09. Now I have new lymph nodes developing attached to my renal artery. There is also a tumor growing very slowly in the body and tail of my pancreas. There is swelling in the new lymph nodes.

Was this comment helpful?Yes

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