The right way to check lymph nodes in your armpit, according to a breast surgeon

Swollen lymph nodes are one sign that your lymphatic system is working to rid your body of infection and illness.
Checking the lymph nodes in your armpit is an important part of breast self-examinations. (Getty Images)

A breast surgeon has explained the correct way to properly check lymph nodes under your armpit as part of your regular at-home breast check.

Suffolk-based Dr Liz O’Riordan, who lives with breast cancer herself, shared a short clip on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, which demonstrates the right way to feel for enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr O’Riordan discouraged women from examining their armpit with their arm raised high above their heads. "When your hand is in the air, your armpit skin is stretched and it’s tense," she explained. "There’s no way you’re going to feel lymph nodes deep inside."

In order to examine your armpit, it needs to be relaxed, she said. Her advice is to "rest your hand on the opposite shoulder and feel [your armpit] with the other hand."

Your arm should be relaxed, with your elbow resting on your chest, as you do this. With your other hand, you can start to feel your armpit from the bottom of where your armpit hair starts to grow, moving it upwards.

"You’re pushing in with the flat of your hand to see if you can feel any enlarged lymph nodes like small marbles," Dr O’Riordan concluded in her video.

The post, which has been viewed more than 47.2k times since she shared it on Tuesday 19 December, has garnered responses from women who were surprised at the method – which is how doctors are trained to check lymph nodes.

"Thank you, I’m 53 and didn’t know this," one person said, with another adding: "Thank you for this Dr Liz, never knew this was the best way to check armpits. All info seems to show raised arms."

Speaking to Yahoo UK, Dr O’Riordan says most women don’t know how to properly check their breasts and armpits for lumps, and often see the wrong information on social media.

Shot of an attractive young woman feeling her armpits during her morning beauty routine
Raising your arm above your head is not the best way to check your lymph nodes, Dr O'Riordan says. (Getty Images)

"I see an awful lot of influencers showing women how to do it standing up with their arms up in the air, and it’s not how a doctor feels for lumps," she explains. "I want women to understand that if you want to check your armpits, this is the best chance at finding a lymph node."

Many women also have a lack of understanding about their anatomy, particularly when it comes to lymph nodes, which are tucked "high up in your armpit”.

"No one really knows what you’re looking for or feeling for," she says. "There’s no point checking if you’re not doing it the right way, because you’re not going to find anything."

When a doctor checks you for lumps in your breasts and armpits, they usually hold your arm at a 90 degree angle. As the doctor is holding your arm for you, your arm is relaxed and they know what they’re doing to find the lymph nodes.

However, when you’re checking regularly at home, your arm and armpit would tense up if you were holding it up in the air, Dr O’Riordan explains. "You can’t get in to feel the lymph nodes."

She adds that feeling for enlarged lymph nodes is difficult, and even doctors and breast surgeons often miss them unless an ultrasound has picked them up. In addition, lymph nodes can become enlarged for a number of reasons, including due to coughs, colds and the flu as one of their functions is to fight infections.

However, it’s still worth doing because you may feel something sooner rather than later, especially if you are carrying out self breast examinations regularly. Dr O’Riordan recommends doing them once a month, in the middle of your cycle, and to take notice if you feel a lump while having no symptoms of a cough or cold.

"You’re trying to feel for a small chickpea-sized or marble-sized lump that is firm, like a jellybean," she says. "You want to do a self exam mid-cycle if you are still having periods, because that’s when your breasts are less lumpy.

"Most of us only check when it’s breast cancer awareness month in October or when someone famous has been diagnosed with it. But if you do it every month, you’ll learn what’s normal for you and it’ll be easier to notice when something is wrong."

Watch: How to check your breasts for lumps

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