Although palpation has proved to be an unreliable staging procedure, the indications for and the implications of more reliable radiologic staging methods for the neck in patients with a primary squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck remain controversial. Only a very accurate imaging technique can replace neck dissection in clinical NO disease. This study compares the value of palpation with computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound (US) with or without guided aspiration cytology for neck node staging. One hundred and thirty-two patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck were examined radiologically before undergoing a total of 180 neck dissections as part of their treatment. CT, US and MRI proved to be significantly more accurate than palpation for cervical lymph node staging. The accuracy of US-guided aspiration cytology was significantly better than of any other technique used in this study. Modern imaging techniques are essential for appropriate assessment of neck node metastases. In view of advances in the accuracy of contemporary imaging, the need for elective treatment of the neck requires reappraisal.
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