Why the Health Care Provider Examines the Neck and Throat

When your health care provider gently presses on the outside of your throat and neck during an office visit, it may seem like a brief and unimportant part of your exam. But checking the throat and neck can help your health care provider diagnose a range of illnesses and disorders. These can range from a routine case of strep throat to a life-threatening case of cancer.

One of the things your health care provider checks for in an exam of the neck and throat is enlarged lymph nodes, or "swollen glands," as they are commonly called. Located in areas throughout your neck and around your ears, your lymph nodes normally are small and soft. They're about the size of corn kernels when you're feeling well. But they can get bigger, and may become tender when they begin fighting an infection.

Gently pressing the outside of your throat also helps your health care provider find a swelling in your thyroid. This is an important gland with most of its flesh off to either side of your Adam's apple. Swelling could mean this key gland is not working correctly. An overactive thyroid may make you feel constantly jumpy, while an underactive thyroid may make you feel sluggish. Your health care provider may also ask you to swallow during the thyroid exam.

Palpating (pressing) on your throat also allows your health care provider to find little lumps in the thyroid called nodules. Most of the time these are harmless, fluid-filled cysts, but sometimes they are cancerous.

Palpating the back and sides of the neck can tip off your health care provider to muscle spasms or abnormalities in your spinal column. These might be pinching a nerve and causing the pain. Your health care provider can also find other chains of enlarged lymph nodes.

Finally, examining your neck can reveal possible circulatory problems. Your health care provider uses 2 fingers on each side of your neck to feel your carotid pulses. The right and left carotid arteries supply blood to your brain. Weak pulses could show a problem with the aortic valve or with the aorta. The aorta is the main blood vessel coming from the heart. He or she may listen to the blood flow in the carotids with a stethoscope. This can tell him or her whether you may be in danger of suffering a stroke. A clear carotid makes a "thump, THUMP" noise like a heartbeat. But a carotid dangerously clogged by cholesterol plaque, the waxy substance that builds up on artery walls and contributes to heart attacks, makes a telltale "whoosh, whoosh" noise that will warn your health care provider to do more testing.

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