Head and Neck Pathology

What is Head and Neck pathology?

Head and neck pathology is a subspecialty of anatomic pathology focusing on diseases of the head and neck.

A head and neck pathologist is a type of doctor with highly specialized training who analyzes the tissues of the head and neck in order to diagnose disease and recommend treatment.

They examine tissue specimens from the structures of the head and neck, including:

  • Ear
  • Hypopharynx
  • Larynx
  • Neck
  • Oral cavity
  • Pharynx
  • Salivary gland
  • Sinonasal tract
  • Soft tissues of the head and neck
  • Temporal bone
  • Thyroid and parathyroid
  • Upper respiratory tract

What Do Head and Neck Pathologists Do?

Head and neck pathologists examine tissue samples using microscopes and other specialized tools for more detailed examinations.

From their examination of the tissue samples, they can help diagnose and recommend treatment. They’re also often consulted to provide a second opinion to confirm an initial diagnosis or recommendation.

If cancer is found, a pathologist can provide individualized information about the cancer, like its depth and a treatment plan.

What’s The Difference Between a Head and Neck Pathologist and a Surgeon or Primary Care Provider?

You may see your physician or a surgeon for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of various health issues. In many cases, they can identify an issue and successfully treat it.

When a cause can’t be identified or when more information is needed, a tissue sample obtained through biopsy or resection can be sent to a head and neck pathologist for further study.

Head and neck pathologists are experts in diagnosing and providing detailed information about cancers, immunological problems, and infectious diseases from tissue samples. They primarily work in a laboratory and with other physicians, rather than with patients.

What Types of Diseases Do Head and Neck Pathologists Study?

Head and neck pathology is a study of changes that occur in the body’s tissues due to disease. Head and neck pathologists study all types of tissue to diagnose diseases and conditions that include:

  • Aural polyp
  • Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Erythroplakia
  • Infections
  • Inflammations
  • Mucocele
  • Nasal glioma
  • Oral candidiasis
  • Parathyroid gland disease
  • Salivary gland neoplasms
  • Sinonasal inflammatory polyps and tumors
  • Squamous lesions
  • Thyroid gland nodules
  • Vocal cord nodules

Techniques to Examine Tissue Samples

After a head and neck pathologist has examined a tissue sample with their own eyes, they may turn to microscopic examination and a variety of specialized techniques, tools, and processes to further investigate its condition.

If the microscopic examination doesn’t provide clear answers, pathologists are experts in other testing techniques that may provide more information. Some methods and tools they may use include:

  • Stains. Chemicals or stains can be applied to tissue samples to highlight signs of disease or cell abnormalities. Different stains are used to identify causes and markers that identify characteristics of the specimen.
  • Direct immunofluorescence. A special type of staining that helps identify autoimmune diseases.
  • Frozen section. A sample can be frozen and examined if a diagnosis is needed quickly, like during surgery.
  • Immunohistochemistry. This technique uses the body’s own antibodies to help identify the interaction between the antibodies and antigens triggering the immune system.
  • Electron microscopy. A special type of microscope that uses a beam of electrons instead of light, which allows pathologists to examine cell structures not otherwise visible.
  • Flow cytometry. A technique of analyzing the identity and quantity of a type of cell or particle. Samples are suspended in fluid and passed through different light sources, lenses, and filters to generate wavelength data. Flow cytometry can measure characteristics like cell size and total DNA.

What Do Results Look Like?

The results of a pathological examination are documented in a biopsy or pathology report, which includes information like:

  • A diagnosis
  • A description of the tissue sample
  • A microscopic description of the disease process discovered
  • Clinical information that helped support the diagnosis
  • Additional information to help determine treatment
  • If cancer is found, it may also contain information like how deep the cancer has penetrated the skin
  • Comments from the head and neck pathologist

The report is sent to the treating doctor, who will discuss the results with the patient.

Board-Certified Pathology
Jeff Christal, MD

Jeff Christal, MD

Steven Goodman, MD

Steven Goodman, MD