Salivary Glands

What are salivary glands?

As one might expect, the salivary glands are responsible for secreting saliva into the mouth to moisten the oral cavity and assist in breaking down food. Humans have three pairs of major salivary glands: the parotid glands, submandibular glands and sublingual glands. The parotid glands are located in front of the ear, overlying the angle of the jaw and extending into the upper neck. The submandibular glands are smaller and are located under the jaw. The sublingual glands are the smallest major salivary glands and are located in front of the submandibular glands and under the tongue. In addition to the major salivary glands, hundreds of minor salivary glands, each about the size of a grain of sand, line the membranes of the inside of the mouth.

What are salivary gland tumors?

Tumors can arise from the various cells in the salivary glands when the body’s normal regulating mechanisms do not function as they should. Salivary gland tumors can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Tobacco use is a risk factor for the development of malignant salivary gland tumors. As a general rule, the likelihood of a salivary gland tumor being malignant is inversely proportional to the size of the gland. Tumors of the parotid glands, the largest salivary glands, have only a 20% likelihood of malignancy, whereas tumors of the minor salivary glands have an 80% likelihood of being malignant. The most common type of benign salivary gland tumor is a benign mixed tumor, or pleomorphic adenoma.

How are salivary gland tumors diagnosed?

Most salivary gland tumors present as a lump in the face or neck. There are rarely any other symptoms. Pain is uncommon. Muscle weakness of the face on the side of the tumor is a worrisome finding. Once a salivary gland tumor has been detected by Dr. Lieberman or Dr. Bailor, further diagnostic testing (e.g. CT or MRI scan) may be recommended. A fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy of the tumor may also be done to determine the type of tumor.

How are salivary gland tumors treated?

Surgical excision is the treatment of choice for most salivary gland tumors. Even tumors felt to be benign on needle biopsy should generally be removed, since the tumor will typically continue to grow, leading to increasing cosmetic and functional problems. Surgery to remove the parotid gland is called a parotidectomy. Surgeries to remove the submandibular gland or sublingual gland are referred to as excision of submandibular gland, and excision of sublingual gland, respectively. If the tumor is malignant, Dr. Lieberman may recommend additional treatment, such as radiation therapy.

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