Why the Healthcare Provider Examines the Neck and Throat
When your healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare provider may also ask you to swallow
during the thyroid exam.
Palpating (pressing) on your throat also allows your healthcare 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 healthcare provider to muscle
spasms or abnormalities in your spinal column. These might be pinching a nerve and
causing the pain. Your healthcare provider can also find other chains of enlarged
Finally, examining your neck can reveal possible circulatory problems. Your healthcare
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 healthcare provider to do more testing.