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Why the Doctor Examines the Neck and Throat

When your doctor 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 examination. But checking the throat and neck can help your doctor diagnose a range of illnesses and disorders, from a routine case of strep throat to a life-threatening case of cancer.

One of the things your doctor checks for in an examination 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 enlarge, and may become tender when they begin fighting a bacterial or viral infection.

Gently pressing the outside of your throat also helps your doctor detect swelling in your thyroid, an important gland that straddles your throat like a saddlebag, with most of its flesh off to either side of your Adam's apple. Swelling could mean this key gland is malfunctioning. An overactive thyroid may make you feel constantly jumpy, while an underactive thyroid may make you feel lethargic. Your doctor may also ask you to swallow during the thyroid examination.

Palpating (pressing) on your throat also allows your doctor to detect 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, besides detecting other chains of enlarged lymph nodes, tip your doctor off to muscle spasms or abnormalities in your spinal column that might be pinching a nerve and causing the pain.

Finally, examining your neck can reveal potential circulatory problems. Your doctor uses two fingers on each side of your neck to feel your carotid pulses. The right and left carotid arteries supply blood to your brain. Diminished pulses could indicate a problem with the aortic valve or with the aorta, the main blood vessel arising 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 similar to 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 alert your doctor to do further testing.