The occipital lymph nodes are 1 to 2 cm oval or ball shaped glands situated next to the muscles between the neck and the head. They are a part of the lymphatic system and together with the immune system help fight viral, bacterial, and other pathogenic infections. The glands transport lymph fluid from the area behind the head near the occipital part of the skull and hence are known as occipital nodes.
The afferent lymph vessels which come to these glands get lymph fluid from the occipital section of the head while the efferent lymph vessels that go away from the nodes drain lymph into the superior deep cervical lymph glands. It is possible for the occipital lymph nodes to get infected when fighting against germs. This is when they swell up, enlarge, and elicit pain. Development of the infection causes increased release of lymphocytes by the lymph glands, which is what causes the node size to increase, thereby causing swollen occipital lymph nodes.
Swollen or enlarged occipital lymph nodes
Swelling of the occipital lymph node is medically termed as lymphadenopathy. Any kind of infection of the lymph nodes causes the release of lymphocytes that help fight the infection. Information about this action of lymphocytes release by the lymph glands is passed to the immune system via neurotransmitters or hormones which then sends additional WBCs and other cells to the area to help fight the infection. Such drastic increase in the number of cells in the area is what cause the occipital or sub-occipital lymph nodes to enlarge as well as experience lymphadenitis or inflammation.
Swelling of occipital lymph nodes often occurs with varied symptoms like irritation of the nodes and itchiness of the scalp. Also, increased stress on the nerves next to the affected site can result in stiffness and pain in the neck. Besides debris buildup, swelling may also occur due to occurrence or multiplication of microphages, monocytes, or other body cells.
In most cases, swelling or enlargement of the lymph nodes is a mild condition. However, it can also be a sign of cancer. Hence patients need to seek medical attention if they experience the below listed symptoms:
• The occipital lymph nodes are fixed in its place, are harder than normal, or feel abnormal or irregular
• The lymph nodes become tender, red, or continuously increase in size.
• Presence of a swollen lymph node that measures over 1 cm diametrically in children.
• Nighttime sweating
• Sudden loss of weight
Causes of occipital lymph node pain and swelling
• Occipital lymph node swelling and pain often occurs due to common problems like dandruff, lice, or ringworm. It can also occur due to diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, STDs, gaucher disease, and tonsillitis, etc.
• Swollen occipital nodes can also occur due to infection in the body, especially in the head or scalp. The debris and toxins draining away from the scalp can cause swelling of the glands. An abrasion, cut, or fungal infection as well as throat or ear infections can also cause the occipital nodes to swell up.
• In rare case, occipital node swelling and pain may be caused by cancer. It may be noted such cancer does not metastasize or spread to other areas of the body. However, it is possible for the cancer from one occipital node to transfer to the other lymph glands.
• Lymphoma: The two types of lymphatic cells, i.e., T-cells and B-cells, help protect the body from attack by various germs. The B-cells make proteins which attach to the abnormal cells and germs present in the lymph, while the T-cells find these marker proteins and then destroy the marked cells and germs.
o Cancer of these lymphatic cells is called lymphoma. The cancer is caused due to uncontrolled multiplication of T or B cells which then attack the occipital glands and other lymphatic system organs and group together to develop into a tumor.
o There are 2 types of lymphoma that can cause occipital lymph node swelling. The first is Hodgkin’s disease or Hodgkin lymphoma which forms because of B-cell anomalies and is marked by the occurrence of abnormal and big Reed-Sternberg cells. The second type called non-Hodgkin lymphoma is marked by abnormalities in T or B cells.
o The bone marrow or spleen or other such lymphatic system organs can get affected by blood cancer or leukemia. This cancer lowers WBC production, thereby weakening the immune system function.
Treatment of swollen and painful occipital lymph nodes
The treatment is dependent on the underlying cause.
• Lice and ringworm infections are treated with varied medications.
• Fungal and bacterial infections are treated with antifungals and antibiotics.
• In case of infections by bacterial strains that are resistant to common antibiotics, doctors may conduct further tests and use stronger antibiotics.
• Cancer treatment involves surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.