Occipital lymph glands or nodes (1-3 in number) are a part of the lymphatic system. This system works as the auxiliary unit of the immune system of the body. Together, these systems fight against the disease-causing micro-organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. All the body organs, except central nervous system, come under the protection of the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic capillaries, ducts, nodes and body organs such as spleen, tonsils, etc. The lymph nodes are shaped like beans and are most prominent in the armpits, neck, behind the ears, on the back of the head, in the groin area, under the jaw and chin. Lymph nodes fight against infections with the help of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells.
Lymph is a clear liquid that seeps out of the blood vessels, cells and gets collected in the spaces between the body cells. It is collected by the lymph capillaries, ducts and vessels to pass it on to the lymph nodes where lymphocytes acts against the micro-organisms present in it. The lymph, then, travels down the lymphatic system and ends up in the blood circulatory system.
Occipital lymph nodes, which take care of transportation of lymph from the back of the head region, are located near the muscles between the head and neck. Lymph vessels (afferent) leading to these nodes receives lymph from the scalp's occipital region, whereas, efferent vessels leading from them drain it into the superior deep cervical lymph nodes. While fighting against micro-organism, there are chances of lymph nodes falling prey to the infection. In such situations, these few millimeter to 1-2 cm sized, small ball-like or oval-shaped organs enlarge, and we come to know that something inside is not all right.
Enlarged Lymph Nodes
Occipital lymph node swelling comes under what the doctors refer to as lymphadenopathy. When our body is under attack by pathogens, the immune systems goes on warpath to fight against it. The presence of pathogens in the lymph nodes cause the lymphocytes to retaliate. When the report of this action is telegraphed to the immune system with the help of hormones or neurotransmitter, it sends more warrior cells to these node. This increase in number of body cells at the site of action, leads to enlargement of suboccipital or occipital lymph glands. This also causes inflammation (lymphadenitis) of these nodes. Itchy scalp, due to irritation of these nodes is common in this condition. Swelling of lymph nodes, stresses the nerves in the surrounding region. Pain or stiffness of the neck is also experienced. Apart from accumulation of debris, there are few other causes of enlargement of these nodes, such as, presence or multiplication of the body cells like, monocytes or microphages.
Causes of Swelling
Swelling occurs rarely because of cancer. Your doctor may find the culprit in a bug bite, infected cut or puncture, ringworm, lice, dandruff or a bout of infection of bacterial, fungal or viral origin. In such a situation, you should keep an eye on the size of the lymph node. It matters a lot if it is one inch in size or more, and whether it is still growing. If it has lasted for more than a month, and you have experienced fever and night sweats, then it is in your best interest to consult a doctor.
B-cells and T-cells are the two types of lymphatic cells. These cells work as a team, in offering protection to the body against the pathogens. The B-cells produce proteins that gets attached to the micro-organisms and abnormal cells present in the lymph. The T-cells recognize the marker protein and destroy the tagged entity. Lymphoma is a cancer of lymphatic cells. It occurs, when either of the B-cell or T-cell starts dividing uncontrollably. These cells invade nodes such as occipital lymph nodes and/or other the body organs that are part of the lymphatic system and cluster together to form a tumor. Cancerous cells rarely metastasize from these lymph nodes to the other body organs, however, they can easily transport themselves from the abnormal occipital node to any of the remaining two.
Lymphoma are of 2 types, any one of which can cause the swelling of lymph nodes in occipital region. Hodgkin lymphoma, which is also referred to as Hodgkin's disease. This disease develops due to abnormalities in the B-cell, and is characterized with the presence of large and abnormal cells called Reed-Sternberg cells. The other type of lymphoma is the non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The abnormal changes in the B or T-cells can be a case of NHL lymphoma. Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects organs in the lymphatic system such as the spleen and/or bone marrow. Presence of leukemia affects the production of white blood cells leading to lesser immune function.
If occipital lymph nodes are unwell because of infection then depending on its type, your doctor will prescribe antibiotic, antifungal creams. In case of MRSA infections which easily overcomes commonly used antibiotic, further tests may be advised. He will prescribe proper medicines to get rid of lice or ringworm. For cancer, further tests are needed to confirm its origin, spread and to decide whether to remove the infected occipital node or not.
Lymphatic system is always on alert to fight against infections. In case of depressed immune function such as in the case of AIDS, the human body is at risk of infection, which may result in swelling of lymph nodes. Abnormal condition of lymph nodes can also be an indication of some disease such as tuberculosis, gaucher disease, sexually transmitted diseases, tonsillitis, etc. In case of the enlarged lymph nodes, it is advisable to take professional advice as soon as possible.