A swollen lymph node or gland is a term commonly used to describe lymphadenopathy, a condition associated with enlarged lymph nodes in a specific area of the body (localized) or throughout the entire body (generalized lymphadenopathy). Lymphadenopathy is an indicator of a disorder affecting a certain area of the body or a generalized condition throughout the body.
The lymphatic system is a network of channels (lymph vessels) and ‘filters’ (lymph nodes) that exists throughout the body. Any fluid that exists outside of the blood vessels needs to be drained back into the blood stream and it is the lymphatic system that does this quite effectively. Lymph nodes contain a range of of white blood cells but the main cells are those that attack and destroy invading pathogens (lymphocytes) and the cells that consume debris (macrophages). Once the lymphatic fluid is ‘filtered’, it is emptied back into the blood stream.
When a lymph node becomes enlarged (swollen lymph gland), it is referred to as lymphadenopathy.
Lymphedema is the swelling of an area due to a blockage within a lymph node. If lymphatic fluid cannot filter and move through a lymph node, the lymph vessels become clogged. This prevents interstitial fluid from entering the lymph vessels and being carried back to the bloodstream. Lymphedema more often occurs in the limbs, upper and lower, and is evident as a swelling of the arm or leg.
Causes of Lymphadenopathy (Swollen Lymph Gland) :
Swelling of the lymph nodes occurs as symptom of many diseases and has to be identified along with other signs and symptoms of the causative factor or disease.
- Inflammation of a neighboring organ or body structure or of the lymph node itself (lymphadenitis) or lymph vessels (lymphangitis).
- Infection. Viral, bacterial, protozoa or fungal infections. May be a localized infection or generalized. If
- Cancer. Cancer of node or blood cells within a node (lymphoma, leukemia). Secondary spread (metastasis) from another site.
- Immune Disorders ranging from immune mediate hypersensitivity (allergies) to autoimmune conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis, SLE)
- Metabolic Disorders (1)
- Drugs (2)
Swollen lymph nodes can be a normal occurrence in certain cases and may not indicate any underlying disorder or disease. Lymphadenopathy is common in acute infections like influenza and will subside within a few weeks.
Lymphadenopathy may be asymptomatic meaning that the patient is not able to perceive any abnormality of the affected lymph nodes.
- Tender or painful lymph node sometimes only detectable upon deep palpation by the examining physician.
- Visibly swollen lymph node which is rare except in severe swelling of superficial (lying close to the skin) lymph nodes.
- Hard or rubbery lymph node.
It is important for the physician to investigate further if a swollen lymph node or group of nodes is detected. With regards to the lymph node itself, the following factors pertaining to the swollen ‘gland’ need to be taken into consideration.
- Large or small
- Tender or painless
- Hard or soft
- Fixed or mobile
The following investigative procedures of the lymph node or group of lymph nodes may be necessary to assist with a diagnosis.
- CT Scans
Treatment should be directed at the underlying condition causing the swollen lymph node. Attempting to treat a swollen lymph node itself is pointless unless there is a specific pathology of the node. Contrary to popular belief, massaging a lymph node will not reduce swelling and may cause further complications.
It is important to stress that a swollen lymph node can be indicative of a minor or very serious underlying pathology. A swollen lymph node or groups of enlarged nodes should not be an immediate cause for concern unless it is persisting over a long period of time. If it is noticed that lymph node is growing, tender, hard or fixed, medical attention should be sought immediately.
1. Lymphadenopathy & Metabolic Deterioration. Wrongdiagnosis.com
2. Lymphadenopathy Differential Diagnosis & Evaluation. American Academy of Family Physicians
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on May 13, 2009