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HealthSheets™

Excisional Biopsy: Neck Lymph Node

Side view of the neck and head showing the lymph nodes.
This image shows many of the lymph nodes in the neck area. Your healthcare provider can show you which of your lymph nodes is affected.

The lymph nodes are part of the immune system. These small organs are located throughout the body. There are many of them in the neck. Neck lymph nodes sometimes enlarge. This is most often due to infection, but it can also be caused by cancer. Excisional biopsy helps find the cause of an enlarged lymph node. You may have already had other tests, such as a needle biopsy, but more information is needed for your healthcare provider to diagnose the problem. During an excisional biopsy, part or all of the enlarged lymph node is removed. The removed tissue is then sent to a lab for study. This sheet explains the biopsy procedure and what to expect.

Preparing for the procedure

Prepare for the surgery as you have been instructed. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about all medicines you take. This includes over-the-counter medicines. It also includes herbs and other supplements. You may need to stop taking some or all of them before surgery. Also, follow any directions you’re given for not eating or drinking before surgery.

The day of the procedure

The procedure takes about 60 minutes. Most people go home the same day.

Before the procedure begins

Here is what to expect before surgery:

An IV line is put into a vein in your arm or hand. This line delivers fluids and medicines.

  • You will be given medicine (anesthesia) to help you sleep and keep you free of pain during surgery. This may be sedation, which makes you relaxed and sleepy. Local anesthesia is also injected near the lymph node to numb the area. Or, you may receive general anesthesia. This puts you into a state like deep sleep.

During the procedure

Here is what to expect during surgery: 

  • The skin over the enlarged lymph node is marked and cleaned.

  • An incision (cut) is made through the skin. If possible, the incision is made within the creases of the neck. This makes it less noticeable when it has healed.

  • Part or all of the enlarged lymph node is removed. It is sent to a lab for testing.

  • The incision is closed with sutures, staples, surgical glue, or surgical strips. It is then bandaged.

  • A tube (drain) may be placed near the incision. This drains fluids that may build up after the procedure.

After the procedure

You will be taken to a room to wake up from the anesthesia. You may feel sleepy and nauseated at first. Medicine will be given to manage any pain. If you have a drain, you will be shown how to care for it. When you are ready to go home, have an adult family member or friend drive you. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for recovery, such as:

  • Take any prescribed medicine as directed.

  • Care for your incision as instructed.

  • Avoid strenuous activity until your healthcare provider says it’s OK.

When to call the healthcare provider

Be sure you have a contact number for your healthcare provider so you can get in touch after office hours and on weekends if needed. After you get home, call this number if you have any of the following:

  • Chest pain or trouble breathing (first call 911)

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Soreness at the biopsy site that's getting worse

  • Difficulty turning your head

  • Symptoms of infection at an incision site, such as increased redness or swelling, warmth, worsening pain, or foul-smelling drainage

  • Bleeding or bruising at the incision site

  • Numbness or tingling in the mouth, jaw, neck, arm, or shoulder

  • Problems speaking or swallowing

  • Hoarse voice that worsens

Follow-up

During follow-up visits, your healthcare provider will check on your healing. If you have a drain, it will be removed 1 to 2 days after the procedure. Stitches or staples are removed about 7 to 10 days after the procedure. You and your healthcare provider will also discuss your biopsy results. If cancer was found, further treatment may be needed.

Risks and possible complications

Risks of this procedure include:

  • Bleeding

  • Infection

  • Injury to the spinal accessory nerve, affecting movement of the shoulder (could be temporary or permanent)

  • Injury to sensory nerves, affecting sensation of the earlobe, neck, or skin of the neck (could be temporary or permanent)

  • Neck abscess

  • Scarring

  • Reopening of the incision

  • Another enlarged lymph node

  • Risks of anesthesia (you will discuss these with the anesthesiologist)

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.