Lump on Side of Neck: 7 Common Causes (& What to Do)

Updated in August 2023

A lump on the side of the neck is usually a sign of an inflamed lymph node, which can happen if your body is fighting an infection. A palpable lump can also be a sign of a thyroid nodule or a knot in the neck.

Lumps that are felt on the neck can be painless or they can cause discomfort.

It is important to have any lumps assessed if they do not resolve on their own, or if you experience other symptoms like excessive fatigue, difficulty swallowing, general malaise, or weight loss for no apparent reason.

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What causes a lump on the side of the neck?

A lump on the side of the neck can appear for the following reasons:

1. Lymph nodes

When lymphatic ganglions become inflamed, they form lymph nodes that can be felt as lumps under the skin. These lumps can emerge on the side of the neck, as well as on the back, or behind the ears. Lymph nodes often cause pain and discomfort when palpated.

Swollen lymph nodes can occur due to infection or inflammation, like a tooth infection, flu, tonsillitis or an ear infection. The lymph nodes themselves usually do not require treatment, and will often disappear once the underlying problem is treated.

If the lymph node does not resolve with time, or if you have other symptoms, you should see your doctor for assessment. Persistently swollen lymph nodes can be a symptom of a more serious condition like sarcoidosis or Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What to do: You are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids. It is important to identify what caused the swollen lymph nodes, as treatment with specific medication may be necessary. The doctor may advise analgesics or anti-inflammatories to help with any discomfort or sensitivity in the area.

In addition, you can place eucalyptus tea compresses directly on the lymph node to reduce inflammation.

2. Thyroid nodule

When a lump is noted near the front of the neck, it may be a sign of a thyroid nodule, which should be assessed by an endocrinologist. Generally, thyroid nodules do not cause symptoms, but some people may experience a sore throat, throat swelling, or difficulty breathing or swallowing. 

If you feel a nodule, you should consult your endocrinologist. He or she may order testing like a biopsy, to determine whether the nodule is benign or if there is a risk for cancer.

What to do: If the nodule is benign and there are no other symptoms or changes to thyroid hormones, you should be monitored through annual ultrasounds and bloodwork. On the other hand, if you do have symptoms, changes to hormone levels or if there is a risk for caner, the doctor should recommend appropriate treatment, which may include the use of levothyroxine, radioactive iodine, or surgery to remove the nodule.

3. Neck contracture

Contractures, or knots, can cause a painful lump on the neck. They emerge when the muscle contracts incorrectly and is unable to return to its resting position. Generally, these lumps are firm and are painful. They can limit neck movements significantly.

What to do: To treat a muscular contracture in the neck, you should bathe in warm water, apply warm compresses in the affected area, massage the region with anti-inflammatory creams and stretch the neck as much as possible. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed by the doctor to help with discomfort.

If the knot does not resolve on its own within 7 days or if it gradually worsens, you should see a doctor or physiotherapy for further interventions.

4. Sebaceous cyst

Another possible cause for a lump on the neck is a sebaceous cyst. These cysts form beneath the skin due to built-up sebum. This is an oily substances produced by the skin to protect and lubricate hair follicles.

Sebaceous cysts are small, soft and usually not painful. However, if they become inflamed, they can cause redness, pain and heat in the area.

What to do: Treatment for sebaceous cysts should be advised by a dermatologist. A small procedure to remove the cyst may be necessary.

5. Cancer

In more serious cases, the appearance of a lump on the neck can be a sign of cancer. Cancerous lumps will cause other symptoms, like hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, the sensation of a ball in the throat, frequent choking, weight loss for no apparent reason and general malaise. Tumors that appear on the neck can be growing in local tissues, like the muscles, lymph nodes, skin or thyroid, or they may be a metastasis.

Learn more about cancer symptoms and what signs to look out for. 

What to do: Nodules that appear with the above symptoms should be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible, so that a diagnosis can be confirmed and treatment can be started promptly.

6. Mumps

Mumps is associated with a lump between the ear and chin that occurs due to inflammation of the parotid glands. These glands produce saliva, but can become swollen from an infection by the Paramyxoviridae virus. In addition to the lump on the side of the neck, many people also experience fever and pain in the area.

What to do: Treatment for mumps is usually aimed at relieving associated symptoms. The doctor may prescribe analgesics, like acetaminophen, to reduce discomfort. Rest and hydration are also essential to support your body to eliminate the virus.

7. Lipoma

A lipoma is a type of cyst that can appear anywhere on the body, like the neck, shoulders, arms, back, abdomen and thighs. It is made up mainly of fat cells.

Lipomas grow over time and are usually not associated with any symptoms. they are palpated under the skin and feel like a soft lump. If the lipoma continues to grow to a significant size or if it causes tissue obstruction or compression, it can cause symptoms like redness and increased temperature in the area. 

What to do: Treatment for a lipoma consists of a small surgical procedure to remove it. This is done under local anesthesia and usually just leaves behind a small scar.