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What is a lump?

A lump is a protuberance or localized area of swelling that can occur anywhere on the body. Other terms used to describe the various types of lumps include bump, nodule, contusion, tumor and cyst. Lumps can be caused by any number of conditions, including infections, inflammation, tumors or trauma. Depending on the cause, lumps may be single or multiple, soft or firm, painful or painless. They may grow rapidly or may not change in size.

Lumps due to local infectious causes may appear as boils or abscesses. Many types of infections cause the lymph nodes to enlarge and feel like lumps, most commonly in the neck, near the jawbone, in the armpits, or in the groin. Traumatic causes of lumps range from bug bites to severe injuries that can produce a localized collection of blood in the tissues (hematoma).

Both benign and malignant tumors of the skin, soft tissues, or organs can sometimes feel like lumps. In these cases, either a biopsy or surgical removal of the lump can determine whether cancer is present. Cysts, which are fluid-filled, sac-like structures that can form in various parts of the body, often feel like lumps. Some cysts may be present at birth, while others develop as a result of inflammation, tumors, or wear-and-tear over time.

Conditions that produce inflammation throughout the body, such as rheumatoid arthritis, may be associated with lumps. Lumps located in the thyroid gland may cause symptoms related to hormonal imbalance, including rapid heart rate, sweating, restlessness, and weight loss.

Lumps caused by infection, inflammation or trauma are usually temporary and subside as the underlying condition resolves. Lumps that persist or continue to grow over time may signal more serious conditions such as tumors. A lump on the head that is associated with an injury may signal bleeding in the brain or another emergency and may have life-threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have a lump on the head as a result of an injury.

If you have any lump that is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with a lump?

A lump may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Certain conditions that cause lumps may also involve other body systems.

Related localized symptoms that may occur along with a lump

A lump may be accompanied by other localized symptoms including:

  • Pus or discharge
  • Redness and warmth
  • Tenderness or pain

Other symptoms that may occur along with a lump

A lump may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, a lump may occur with other symptoms, especially those related to head injury, which might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions
  • Profuse or uncontrollable bleeding

What causes a lump?

Lumps have many possible causes, including trauma, infections, inflammatory diseases, benign cysts and tumors, and cancers.

Traumatic causes of lumps

Minor and severe injuries, as well as internal trauma, can result in localized swelling or lump including:

  • Broken bones

  • Head injury

  • Hematoma (collection of blood in body tissues)

  • Hernias

  • Sting or bite injuries

Infectious causes of lumps

An infection may produce one or more lumps in the form of a localized abscess or as a diffuse enlargement of lymph nodes in the affected body region. Infectious causes of lumps include:

Inflammatory causes of lumps

Some conditions that lead to inflammation in the body may produce lumps including:

  • Gout (type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints)

  • Osteoarthritis (type of arthritis characterized by degeneration of the cartilage and bone in the joints)

  • Rheumatic fever (disease characterized by inflammation of the joints and connective tissue, especially in the blood vessels and heart)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

Tumors that can cause lumps

Both benign and malignant tumors can cause lumps including:

  • Breast cancer

  • Breast cyst

  • Fibroma (benign tumor composed of fibrous or connective tissue)

  • Lipoma (benign fatty growth)

  • Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system)

  • Melanoma (cancer arising in the melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells, in the skin or other parts of the body)

  • Nevi (moles of the skin)

  • Non-melanoma skin cancers

  • Thyroid cancer

Serious or life-threatening causes of lumps

In some cases, a lump may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a lump

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your lump including:

  • How long have you had the lump?

  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms along with the lump?

  • Is the lump getting bigger?

  • Is the lump painful?

What are the potential complications of a lump?

Lumps caused by cancer may have life-threatening consequences, which depend on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer. Left untreated, lumps due to abscesses or serious infections may lead to widespread infection in the body. Lumps that arise from head trauma may be associated with life-threatening complications depending on the extent of the injury. Following your treatment plan for serious causes of lumps can help reduce your risk of complications including:

  • Metastatic cancer

  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 31
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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