Lymph Nodes

The major lymph nodes of the head and neck area should be palpated with the patient in an upright position. Findings which should be noted in the patient record include enlarged palpable nodes, fixed nodes, tender nodes and whether the palpable nodes are single or present in groups. Single or multiple non-tender, and fixed nodes are very suspicious for malignancy. Groups of tender nodes usually occur in conjunction with some type of acute infection. Occasionally nodes will remain enlarged and palpable after an infection. This is a relatively common occurrence especially within the submandibular group of lymph nodes. When examined, these nodes should be small (less than 1 cm), non-tender and mobile. Remember to correlate findings from the medical history and general appraisal of the patient to the observations made during the head and neck examination. For example, a previous history of cancer should cause the clinician to be more suspicious of newly appearing palpable nodes than if there is no history of cancer. If suspicious nodes are discovered, the patient should be referred to a physician for immediate evaluation. Figures 11 through 18 depict the examination techniques for the following lymph nodes.

  • Occipital nodes (Figure 11) – Palpate the occipital nodes about one inch above and below the hairline.
Figure 11. Bilateral palpation of the occipital nodes. Be sure to also observe the skin in this area.
Bilateral palpation of the occipital nodes
  • Auricular (Figures 12 and 13) – Palpate the pre and post auricular nodes bilaterally using the pads of the index, middle and ring fingers.
  • Figure 12. Postauricular nodes.
    Postauricular nodes
    Figure 13. Preauricular nodes.
    Preauricular nodes
  • Cervical Chain (Figures 14 and 15) – Palpate the nodes medial to the sternocleidomastoid muscle using a bidigital technique and the nodes posterior to the muscle with a bimanual technique.
  • Figure 14. Palpation of the anterior cervical nodes.
    Palpation of the anterior cervical nodes
    Figure 15. Palpation of the posterior cervical nodes.
    Palpation of the posterior cervical nodes
  • Supraclavicular (Figure 16) – These nodes are examined using digital compressions just superior to the clavicle.
  • Figure 16. Bilateral palpation of the supraclavicular lymph nodes.
    Bilateral palpation of the supraclavicular lymph nodes
  • Submandibular (Figure 17) – Palpate the submandibular nodes by pulling or rolling the tissues under the chin up and over the inferior border of the mandible. Ask the patient to firmly press the roof of the mouth with the tongue. This will allow you to assess the muscles and any pathology associated with the submandibular lymph node areas.
  • Figure 17. Palpate the submandibular lymph nodes using a cupped hand as shown.
    Palpate the submandibular lymph nodes using a cupped hand as shown
  • Submental (Figure 18) – Use digital palpation to determine the presence of an abnormal submental lymph node.
  • Figure 18. Digital palpation of the submental lymph nodes.
    Digital palpation of the submental lymph nodes