Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Jessica Gunawan on May 16, 2022

What Do Your Swollen Lymph Nodes Mean?

Swollen lymph nodes are often one of the first signs of lymphoma. Does that mean you should worry or are your symptoms indicative of something less serious? Learn more here.

Swollen lymph nodes min scaled

Swollen lymph nodes can be scary because they often indicate that your immune system has been activated in some way.

But, does this mean that you are simply fighting a cold or could it be something more serious, like lymphoma?

In this guide, our experts weigh in on what your swollen lymph nodes could indicate and how to best support your health.

Do Swollen Lymph Nodes Mean You Have Lymphoma?

Swollen lymph nodes can occur in the armpit, neck, and groin areas.

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system comprising a network of vessels, tissues, nodules, and organs throughout our body. The nodules, called lymph nodes, are like stations within this network. They contain specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes that multiply in number when it detects a pathogen and works to get rid of it. This is why our lymph nodes swell when we are sick with certain illnesses.

Lymphoma is a type of cancer in which the lymphocytes multiply uncontrollably. It results in swollen lymph nodes due to malignant tumors. There are over 60 different types of lymphoma that can be broadly categorized into either Hodgkin’s or Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The latter is more common. The difference lies in the type of abnormal cells found in Hodgkin lymphoma, called the Reed-Sternberg cells.

Possible Symptoms Of Lymphoma

Here are the most common local and systemic symptoms of lymphoma. Having one or more of the symptoms below does not necessarily mean that you have lymphoma. Many of these are symptoms present in other illnesses. 

Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, neck, or groin

These are sometimes painless, feel rubbery, smooth, and around, and might move if you try pressing on them. As the tumor grows, the swollen lymph node can get quite big. The swelling can also come and go depending on whether the cancer is actively multiplying cells or dormant.

Chest or abdominal complications

If the swollen lymph nodes are in the chest, you may have symptoms that arise from the compression of your lungs and air passages by the swell (or mass), causing a dry cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fullness.

Similarly, if the lymphoma is in the abdomen, you may feel bloated with a swollen tummy. If it is in your stomach, you may also develop non-specific symptoms, such as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, gastritis, diarrhea, or constipation. 

Itchy skin

To fight lymphoma, your immune system releases certain chemicals that irritate the nerves in your skin, causing itching. The itching can be severe and cause sleep disturbance, but it’s not usually accompanied by a rash (unless you have skin lymphoma). The itching may be near swollen lymph nodes under the skin.

Fatigue or frequent infections

If you experience fatigue, you won’t find relief even after having slept or rested. This could be due to the body trying to fight the lymphoma. 

Additionally, lymphoma compromises your lymphatic system, making it more difficult for your body to fight off infections.

Fever due to lymphoma cannot be explained by any known infection. In lymphoma, the cells produce certain chemicals that raise the body temperature, manifesting as a low-grade fever (38°C or 100.4°F). 

Weight loss

Lymphoma, like all cancers, uses up your body’s energy resources. At the same time, your body also takes up more energy to fight cancer. This results in rapid weight loss that is unintentional and unexplainable.

Night sweats

Night sweats are a condition of heavy sweating to the point of being drenched. A person would need to change their clothing, usually at night. 

The last three of the common symptoms above are also called “B Symptoms” when they appear together. They are used by doctors when referring to the stage of lymphoma.

Swollen Lymph Nodes, According To TCM

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cancer falls under the TCM diagnoses of Zhen Jia (Mass or Tumor), Ying Liu (GoiterGoiter), Ji Ju (accumulations), or Shi Rong (Loss Of Luxuriance).

Like western medicine, TCM also views the lymphatic system as it’s related to the body’s normal immune and metabolic functions, specifically in the TCM organ system San Jiao (triple warmer) is responsible for fluid regulation and waste and toxin elimination. 

“The main cause of cancers like lymphoma is Liver Qi Stagnation. When the Liver qi is stagnant, fluid metabolism is affected, hence the formation of Phlegm. Internal stagnation builds an internal Fire, causing the essence and blood to diminish, and one to feel weak in general. From TCM’s perspective, swollen lymph nodes are considered Phlegm nodulation or Blood Stasis. The affected organs are usually the Spleen, Kidney, and Liver,” TCM Physician Lim Sock Ling explained. 

How To Use TCM To Address Swollen Lymph Nodes

Always have your swollen lymph nodes evaluated by a doctor or TCM physician to determine the cause.

Incorporating TCM into cancer management as a complementary and adjuvant therapy shows promise. This is because TCM enhances the body’s own ability to develop defenses and fight against physical stresses brought about by cancer and its management.

Recent research shows acupuncture, for example, works as well and sometimes better than antidepressants such as fluoxetine and venlafaxine at alleviating psychological symptoms such as insomnia and depression.

Another research article stated that certain TCM formulations containing herbs like Scutellaria BaicalensisZiziphus JujubaPaeonia Lactiflora, and Glycyrrhiza Glabra reduce the adverse effects of capecitabine, a chemotherapy drug. 

“Cooling herbs such as Honeysuckle Flower, Dandelion, Herba DiolaeScutellariae BarbataeHedyotis Diffusa, and Red Peony Root are used in an herbal composition for treating lymphoma,” Physician Lim shared.

“Hai Zao Yu Hu Soup is a classical formula commonly used to reduce swollen lymph nodes by removing Phlegm, softening hard masses, regulating qi and dispersing mass, as well as nourishing yin and purging Fire,” she further adds. This formulation contains kombu, a cold and salty TCM herb rich in antioxidants with the ability to purge and soften masses and fight inflammation.

Another study found that Lingzhi Cracked Spores may modulate the immune system, which can help fight infections that lead to swollen lymph nodes.

Final Thoughts On Swollen Lymph Nodes

The good news is that swollen lymph nodes and other common symptoms that may look like lymphoma don’t necessarily mean you have lymphoma. However, it’s always good to have a deeper understanding of this condition when you speak with your doctor.

Lymphoma treatment has come a long way both in Western medicine and TCM. Survival rates are among the highest among cancers. If you observe any of these symptoms and they don’t seem to go away, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor, just to be sure.

References

  1. LymphomaAction.org. 2019. Symptoms of lymphoma.  
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2019. Swollen Lymph Nodes
  3. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2014. Acupuncture in the Treatment of Cancer-Related Psychological Symptoms. 
  4. Cancer Medicine. 2019. Ginkgo biloba: Traditional Chinese medicine as a cancer treatment: Modern perspectives of ancient but advanced science.  
  5. World Health Organization. 2020. Cancer Country Profile 2020 – Malaysia.  
  6. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. 2011. Chapter 9: Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi).

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