Stephen J. Schueler, M.D.

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Swollen Neck Anatomy

To better understand neck swelling, it helps to understand the anatomy of the neck and cervical spine.

The neck contains many important structures. The trachea, esophagus, spinal cord and large blood vessels run through the neck. The thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, and lymph nodes are also present in the neck.

The neck also contains 7 stacked spine bones called vertebrae. This column of bones starts under the skull and continues to the upper back.

Bones of the cervical spine:

  • Bones of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine
  • Cervical spine side view
  • Cervical spine back view
  • Cervical spine front view

Inside the spinal column is a tube for the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that starts at the bottom of the brain. It carries information back and forth between the body and the brain.

In between the vertebrae are the disks. The disks act as rubber pads in between each vertebrae of the spine. Each disk attaches to the bottom of the vertebra above it, and to the top of the vertebrae below it. Strong ligaments and muscles hold the vertebral column together. All of these structures support, surround, and protect the spinal cord.

Anatomy examples:
  • The vertebral disks
  • Spinal nerves exiting the spinal column in the neck
  • Spinal cord and nerves
  • View of disks and ligaments

Lymph nodes are also present in the neck. The nodes act as filters to fight infection in the body. Lymph nodes can enlarge in response to inflammation. This can occur due to cancer or an infection nearby the lymph vessels.

Anatomy examples:
  • Areas of lymph nodes in the body
  • Areas in the body where lymph nodes can be felt
  • Abnormal lymph node cells due to Hodgkin's disease

Last Updated: Mar 26, 2009 References
Authors: Stephen J. Schueler, MD; John H. Beckett, MD; D. Scott Gettings, MD
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PubMed Swollen Neck References
  1. Bas M, Hoffmann TK, Kojda G. Evaluation and management of angioedema of the head and neck. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2006 Jun;14(3):170-5. [16728895]
  2. Nunnelee JD. Superior vena cava syndrome. J Vasc Nurs. 2007 Mar;25(1):2-5; quiz 6. [17324762]
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