Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. Lymph nodes filter lymph fluid as it travels through the body carrying those materials. There are hundreds of lymph nodes throughout the body and their location helps determine their function. Lymph nodes near the head and neck drain the head area, while nodes near the chest drain the chest area and so on. When you feel swelling or tenderness in a certain lymph node, it usually indicates the nodes in that area are working to filter bacteria, viruses or other harmful substances that have entered the body near the swollen nodes. This is why swollen lymph nodes are one of the telltale signs of illnesses like strep throat or a cold. But while you can easily feel swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms and groin, can you actually feel lymph nodes draining?
What Does It Feel Like When Lymph Nodes Drain?
For the most part, no, you cannot actually feel when lymph nodes are actively draining or filtering lymph fluid. That process happens continuously without sensation. However, in some cases, you may experience mild sensations when lymph nodes are working very hard to filter high volumes of fluid and waste. This can cause a vague ache or tenderness in the area around the working lymph nodes. For example, if you have a bad head cold, the lymph nodes around your neck and throat may ache dully as they filter out viruses and bacteria related to the illness. The sensation is not necessarily the nodes draining, but more the inflammation and swelling that occurs as they work overtime. Any noticeable feeling is more likely to occur with swollen lymph nodes rather than normal healthy ones.
Can You Feel Lymph Nodes in Certain Areas?
While healthy lymph nodes generally do their job without creating sensations, some areas of the body allow you to feel lymph nodes easier than others simply due to their proximity to the skin and sensitivity of the area. The neck, armpits and groin have lymph nodes closer to the surface, so you may notice them occasionally even when they are not swollen. For example, you can sometimes feel small, bean-shaped lymph nodes under the jaw and low on the neck normally. They will feel soft, smooth and rubbery and may roll slightly under the fingertips. You may also sometimes notice a bean-shaped lymph node or a small cluster under the arms or in the groin crease. These are all normal as long as they are not tender, painful or abnormally enlarged.
What Causes Lymph Nodes to Become Noticeable?
While normal functioning lymph nodes usually are not palpable, certain circumstances can lead to lymph nodes becoming more pronounced and noticeable. Some common causes include:
- Infection – One of the main triggers for lymph node swelling is an infection, which causes increased filtering and drainage. Swollen nodes from infection are most common in the neck, underarms and groin.
- Inflammation – Inflammation from conditions like arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders can cause enlarged lymph nodes as the immune system responds.
- Cancer – Some cancers like leukemia and lymphoma cause lymph nodes to swell and feel noticeably enlarged as chemicals from cancer cells accumulate.
- Injury or trauma – Physical impacts like surgery, tattoos or piercings can make nearby lymph nodes enlarge and feel tender as they drain fluids from injured tissues.
- Liposuction – Liposuction sometimes injures nearby lymph vessels, leading to buildup of fluid and swollen nodes.
Basically, any time the immune system kicks into high gear or excess fluid drains to the lymph nodes, they can become engorged and more prominent. Illness is the most common trigger for swollen lymph nodes. Even a basic head cold can make the neck nodes puff up visibly.
Are Enlarged Lymph Nodes Painful?
Swollen lymph nodes may or may not be painful depending on what is causing them and how severe the swelling is. Mild temporary swelling from common illness often creates minimal or no pain. But very enlarged lymph nodes from severe infection, inflammation or cancer buildup can create a heavy, tender feeling in the affected area. Nodes swollen from cancer tend to feel rubbery and rock hard compared to softer nodes swollen from infection. Lymph nodes near the surface such as in the neck and groin are more likely to feel painful when inflamed since they have less surrounding tissue to expand into. Deep lymph nodes like those around the lungs and abdomen have more space to enlarge before sensation occurs. Talk to your doctor if you have any significantly swollen and painful lymph nodes that do not resolve with rest and over-the-counter pain medication.
Can You Tell if Lymph Fluid is Draining Properly?
Besides sometimes feeling swollen lymph nodes, there are other signs that may indicate improper lymph drainage in the body. Some symptoms of inadequate lymph drainage include:
- Swelling in the arms or legs – Fluid buildup from poor drainage can cause limb swelling.
- Skin thickening or hardening – Poor fluid transport can make the skin puffy, thick and hard.
- Aching, heaviness or discomfort – Fluid retention creates sensations of fullness and heaviness.
- Decreased mobility – Drainage problems limits flexibility and range of motion in the limbs.
- Infections – Poor drainage reduces immunity and raises infection risk.
These types of symptoms point to a systemic issue with lymph flow rather than just swollen nodes in one area. Some conditions known to impair overall lymph drainage are:
- Lymphedema – Swelling from blockages or damage to lymph vessels.
- Lymphangitis – Inflammation from infection that blocks proper flow.
- Some cancers – Tumors can compress lymph vessels.
- Radiation therapy – Can damage lymph system function.
- Obesity – Excess fat can compress lymph vessels.
See your doctor if you suspect an underlying problem with lymph drainage. Your physician can check for signs of swelling, take measurements for comparison over time, and may order imaging tests to look for blockages or damage. Proper treatment to improve lymph flow may include massage, compression garments, exercise, medication, or other therapies.
When to See a Doctor About Lymph Nodes
You should make an appointment with your physician if you experience any of the following:
- Lymph nodes are enlarged substantially and feel hard or rubbery
- Swollen nodes stay enlarged longer than 2-4 weeks
- Swollen nodes are accompanied by unexplained weight loss or night sweats
- Lymph nodes are tender and painful to the touch
- You notice swelling/tightness extending beyond the nearby lymph nodes
- You develop other signs of lymphatic insufficiency like limb swelling
These types of symptoms warrant medical evaluation to determine if infection, inflammation, cancer or another disorder is causing the lymph node changes. In some cases, imaging tests like CT scan, MRI or lymph node biopsy may be necessary.
While healthy lymph nodes typically do their job filtering lymph without being felt, you can sometimes notice normal lymph nodes in sensitive areas like the neck and groin. Lymph nodes commonly become swollen and more noticeable when fighting infection. Nodes that remain abnormally enlarged or are accompanied by systemic symptoms should be evaluated medically to rule out underlying illness. Treatments are available to help improve lymph drainage if the nodes are having trouble keeping up. So in summary, enlarged lymph nodes may occasionally be felt draining large amounts of fluid, but this sensation is less common than simply noticing swollen nodes remaining from fighting infection or other immune triggers. Contact your doctor if any nodes stay significantly enlarged so the cause can be determined.