Causes of Lumps Behind the Ears: What causes them? Why do they occur? How are they diagnosed?
These questions have been asked many times before. They may even be answered with a simple answer like “it’s all in your head.” However, there is another explanation for these mysterious conditions known as “lumps behind the ears” which are actually benign tumors.
Lumps behind the ears are not only found on men but women too!
So what exactly are they?
The term “lump behind the ears” refers to a collection of fluid that forms inside the ear canal. This fluid is called a cochlea and it contains nerve cells that transmit sound waves from your inner ear to your brain. If this tissue were removed, you would hear nothing but static. The fluid surrounding the cochlea also acts as insulation against external noise, so if it was damaged, hearing loss could result.
There are several types of lumps behind the ears. Some are benign, while others are malignant. Malignant lumps can cause permanent damage to the ear drum itself, resulting in deafness or even total hearing loss.
A few years ago, I had a patient whose doctor thought she might have a tumor behind her left ear. She underwent surgery to remove it and after treatment for some time, she reported no improvement in her hearing loss. Sure enough, the lump had been malignant.
She was fitted for a hearing aid.
So what is the difference between a cyst and a tumor?
The difference is that cysts are filled with a liquid (like wax) or semi-solid material (like pus). Well-known examples of cysts include: ovarian cysts, sebaceous cysts, and even Bartholin’s cysts found inside the ear canal.
The term “benign” means that a growth is not cancerous and doesn’t spread. The term “malignant” means that it is can be both harmful and likely to spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor can be either benign or cancerous.
Both cysts and tumors grow in size, but only tumors can invade surrounding tissue, affecting its function. For example, a skin cancer can invade the layers of skin, destroying them and replacing them with tumor growths.
The exact causes of cysts and tumors are usually unknown. However, some health conditions and environmental factors can be risk factors for their development.
It is believed that cysts are caused by damage to the skin or tissues, which allows fluid, sebum, and keratin to build up and form a lump. These cysts can be caused by accidents, inflammation, infection, or even heredity. Trauma to the ear can cause a perforation of the tympanic membrane (the ear drum), allowing body fluids to build up behind it and form a cyst.
Infections within the ear can also cause cysts to form.
The most common type of malignant tumor behind the ears is an epithelioma. This type of cancer begins in the skin or in other tissues that line organs. Skin cancers most often begin in the:
Most skin cancers are discovered early enough to be successfully treated, especially when they are found and treated in a timely manner.
The human body contains many small breaks in the epithelial tissue layer. This tissue layer is essential to our survival as it lines all of the organs and cavities within the body. The lining of the mouth, nose, throat, stomach and intestines is made up of epithelial cells.
This tissue layer also lines the outer edge of the skin.
Non-cancerous tumors, called Lipomas, often form in areas where the skin is thin and has less protection from injury or trauma. Areas of the body that have thin skin and are more likely to suffer trauma include:
In most cases, any kind of tumor located in this area is benign. In order to stay safe from malignant tumors, it is important to not engage in risky behavior such as:
Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening. However, they can cause problems if they grow to be very large or damage surrounding tissues and organs. For example, a lipoma can cause pain and discomfort if it grows to be very large.
It can also interfere with limb movement or cause limited range of motion.
Benign tumors are often more difficult to treat than malignant tumors. When benign tumors are treated with surgery, the surrounding tissues and organs must also be carefully evaluated. Sometimes, surgeons will need to remove additional tissue surrounding a benign tumor to prevent regrowth or reoccurrence.
For example, after surgically removing a lipoma, doctors might need to take a small sample of the muscle in the area and evaluate it under a microscope for signs of recurring tumors.
Most small skin growths and bumps are nothing to worry about. Skin lesions can be caused by:
Skin lesions that persist, won’t go away, or won’t heal could be signs of a larger problem. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you notice any new growths, sores, or bumps on your skin or if a pre-existing growth changes size, shape, color, or consistency. During an annual physical examination and/or skin check, your doctor will examine your skin and the skin on your body to look for signs of skin cancer.
The first sign of skin cancer is a change in the appearance of an existing mole or spot on the skin. It may grow in size or change color. It may also become raised or acquire an irregular border.
Many people will notice a new spot on their skin, which may be flat or raised, pink or darker in color. It may also be scaly or patchy.
Skin cancer usually begins as a basal cell carcinoma (BCC). It is caused by sun damage to the skin and is most often seen in older adults. In most cases, it won’t spread beyond the upper layers of the skin.
The signs of a basal cell carcinoma include:
Although most cases of BCC are harmless, it can sometimes develop into a more serious condition called an invasive SCC. These cancerous cells can grow deeply into the skin and form a lump, which will usually be red, brown or black in color. These are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
If your doctor feels a lesion is suspicious for skin cancer, he or she will usually refer you to a dermatologist – a doctor who specializes in the care of skin, hair and nails. A dermatologist will perform a biopsy to determine if the lesion is a sign of skin cancer. During the procedure, your doctor will remove a sample of the growth and send it to a laboratory, where it will be inspected under a microscope.
The treatment for skin cancer depends on the type and severity of the condition. More than one treatment may be necessary and some treatments may be combined. For example, a surgical procedure may be used to remove a growth or tumors.
Some growths (such as a basal cell tumor) may only need to be frozen with liquid nitrogen or cauterized to prevent them from spreading.
Other treatments your dermatologist may recommend include:
Skin tags (acrochordon) are common, harmless skin growths. They are also known as acral lentigines and affix to the skin via a thin stalk. They frequently form in areas of the body that are commonly subjected to friction, such as the sides of the neck, armpits, under the arms and in the groin area.
They are also found in skin folds.
The medical name for skin tags is acral lentigines and they can develop on any area of the body. Some people have even reported them on the eyelids or inside of the ear.
Skin tags are small, soft bumps that protrude from the skin. They range in color from tan to dark brown or black. They usually have a tiny black spot in the middle.
While skin tags are generally harmless and do not represent a disease condition, they can sometimes predispose to skin cancer if they grow in area of the body that is regularly exposed to the sun.
There are many ways to remove a skin tag. The method your dermatologist chooses will depend on the size, shape and location of the skin tag. The procedure is fairly simple and most only take a few minutes to remove.
Your skin will heal within a few days with no permanent scars.
Skin tags are fairly common and generally harmless, but if you find them unsightly they can easily be removed. There are many ways to do this.
Sources & references used in this article:
Multiple cutaneous and subcutaneous lesions occurring simultaneously with hereditary polyposis and osteomatosis by EJ Gardner, RC Richards – American journal of human genetics, 1953 – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Is this lump in the neck anything to worry about? How to recognize warning signs of an abnormal mass by WB Armstrong, MF Giglio – Postgraduate medicine, 1998 – Taylor & Francis
Acoustical Properties of the Intact Ear by A Michelsen – The Physiology of the Locust Ear (I-III), 1971 – Springer
Subcutaneous angiolymphoid hyperplasia with eosinophilia by JD Parmar, N Brown – Head, Neck and Thyroid Surgery: An Introduction …, 2020 – CRC Press
Assessment of neck lumps in primary care by GC Wells, IW Whimster – British Journal of Dermatology, 1969 – Wiley Online Library
A Boy With a Bump Behind the Ear by J Bajwa, MF Vaz, MI Haq – InnovAiT, 2009 – journals.sagepub.com
Mosby’s Physical Examination Handbook-E-Book by D Lipoma – consultant360.com