Swollen Glands or Lymph Nodes With Fibromyalgia

Q: "In your conversations with all of these people who have FMS do you ever come across swollen glands in the neck and under the jaw line? I get a very tight feeling in my neck sometimes and burning sensations. Have had bloods done but they come back as normal. Sometimes it really makes me feel unwell." ~Lin

A: Swollen glands are a fairly common feature of fibromyalgia (FMS), and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) as well.

Typically, we associate swollen glands with acute illnesses. They're a sign that your immune system is working against some kind of pathogen. It's fairly normal for them to ache, even in "normal" people, so they're especially likely to hurt us because of our low pain thresholds (the point at which sensation becomes painful.) That feeling of "unwellness" that accompany them probably mean that you've picked up some illness, or that your body is having a harder time in the battle against longer-term pathogens.

The "glands" that people refer to are actually lymph nodes, which are little bundles of white nerve cells. In FMS and ME/CFS (possibly more so in ME/CFS), they're often a symptom of a chronically active immune system -- your body is increasing its number of white blood cells to fight off the bug, so the area gets puffed up with them. However, especially in FMS, they may also be a consequence of what some researchers describe as thick or sluggish bodily fluids.

The lymph that would normally pass through seems to get backed up.  We have lymph nodes throughout the body, in the:

  • Under the jaw & chin
  • Groin
  • Armpit
  • Down both sides of the neck
  • On either side of the spine on the back of the neck
  • On either side of the thyroid gland in the front of the neck
  • Behind the ears
  • On the back of the head

If you have swelling or pressure in the center of your neck, it could be your thyroid gland.  Be sure to get that checked out right away.

Swollen lymph nodes don't require any treatment just because they're swollen. However, if they're painful, you have several options for easing the pain:

  • Heat and/or ice, possibly alternating. Try different combinations to see what helps most.
  • Ibuprofen, other NSAIDs or other pain medications.
  • Manual lymph drainage (a type of massage) if it appears to be stagnant lymph.

I get painful, swollen lymph nodes that don't appear to be connected to immune problems. I can usually tell the difference because, at least for me, immune-related swelling is mildly painful and confined to the site, while stagnant-lymph swelling causes a deeper ache that radiates. I've had manual lymph drainage for it, and it can feel really good. However, sometimes it takes deeper massage than my body can handle. I have to be thorough in communicating with my massage therapist so she knows how much pressure she can use on any given day.

I've also had cupping, a traditional Chinese treatment that involves suction cups. It's not as good at relieving the congestion, but it's less likely to cause pain later, so it's a good alternative.

Photo © Colin Anderson/Getty Images

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