Benign Tumors of Minor Salivary Glands Workup

Updated: Nov 21, 2019
  • Author: Vijay A Patel, MD; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, MSc, DSc, AGAF  more...
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Laboratory Studies

A complete blood count (CBC) with differential may be elevated in cases with an underlying inflammatory process. This possibility must be excluded before definitive surgical intervention is initiated. For patients undergoing fine-needle aspiration (FNA), determination of prothrombin time (PT)/international normalized ratio (INR) may be indicated to assess for baseline coagulopathy. 


Imaging Studies

Controversy exists regarding the routine use of imaging for small lesions of the minor salivary glands because radiographic imaging typically does not alter the management of these lesions.

Nevertheless, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or both may be useful for suspected tumors of the parapharyngeal space. MRI and CT are also optimal for delineating the complete extent of the tumor and assessing for regional lymphadenopathy. In addition, these imaging modalities are useful for evaluating the possibility of invasion into surrounding tissues and facilitating the planning of definitive surgical resection.

Computed tomography

When bony erosion is a concern (eg, in palatal minor salivary gland tumors), CT may be required to assess the extent of locoregional involvement, which will play a role in planning for definitive resection as well as subsequent reconstruction. Similarly, CT is indicated for minor salivary gland neoplasms involving the paranasal sinuses to delineate the extent of the tumor and differentiate tumor from obstructive inflammatory changes.

Magnetic resonance imaging

MRI (see the image below) is superior in soft-tissue differentiation and is particularly helpful in assessing tumor extent, marrow infiltration, and perineural spread. It can also detect signal changes and extracapsular spread within regional lymph nodes while simultaneously avoiding exposure to ionizing radiation. The disadvantages of MRI include its relatively high cost in comparison with CT, its susceptibility to motion artifact, and its poor cortical bone delineation. [31]

Coronal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan demo Coronal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan demonstrating a large, benign lesion of the right parapharyngeal space.


Minor salivary gland lesions in the mucosa of oral cavity, pharynx and tracheobronchial tree are not easily accessible or visualized via conventional ultrasonography. Accordingly, this imaging modality is rarely employed in the management of minor salivary gland lesions.


Other Tests

Fine-needle aspiration cytology

FNA cytology was first developed as a diagnostic tool at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the 1930s. However, it is only in the past two decades that it has become a widely applied technique in the management of salivary gland tumors. [32] In general, the histopathology of salivary gland tumors is extremely varied and complex; therefore, correct cytologic typing of a primary salivary gland neoplasm can be difficult to perform. [33]

The utility of FNA has been well established by Eneroth and others, who advocated its routine use and reported accuracy rates in the range of 74-90%. [34]  Although the procedure is somewhat operator-dependent, it is generally regarded as safe, simple to perform, relatively inexpensive, and low in morbidity. When a needle of appropriate size is used, the risk of seeding of the needle tract is negligible (0.003% and 0.009%). [35]  Open biopsy is rarely performed, because of the risk of tumor spillage, associated infection, and tumor recurrence. [5]

Core needle biopsy

Currently, core needle biopsy (CNB) is not commonly employed in the management of salivary neoplasms, because of the risk of tumor spillage. The overall risk of tumor seeding with CNB is estimated to be in the range of 0-22%. [36]  Factors implicated include needle size, use of a single vs coaxial needle, and tumor-related factors. There may, however, be a role for CNB in cases where prior FNA was nondiagnostic. Thus, surgeons must exercise discretion when considering CNB in the management of these lesions.


Histologic Findings

Basal cell adenoma

Basal cell adenomas comprise a mixture of basal, myoepithelial, and ductal cells. Basal cells are morphologically subdivided into the following two main categories:

  • Small, dark cells with sparse cytoplasm and round, hyperchromatic nuclei
  • Larger pale cells that are more polygonal, with basophilic to slightly eosinophilic cytoplasm and vesicular nuclei

The small dark cells usually form the periphery of tumor nests and demonstrate peripheral palisading, whereas the larger cells rest on top of this peripheral layer. Within the center, tumor nests are composed of small ductules lined by cuboidal epithelium. [16]  Architecturally, basal cell adenomas are divided into the following six growth pattern subtypes [37] :

  • Solid
  • Trabecular
  • Tubular
  • Membranous
  • Cribriform
  • Myoepithelial-derived stroma-rich

Canalicular adenoma

Canalicular adenomas may or may not be encapsulated and are composed of cuboidal to columnar cells with dark, often elongated nuclei with light eosinophilic to amphophilic cytoplasm. These cells are characteristically arranged in anastomosing cords that are two cells thick; this alternating pattern of abutment and separation has been referred to as beading. [16]


Cystadenomas may be lined by a variety of epithelial types. Most commonly, the luminal epithelium is cystic to cuboidal with pale eosinophilic cytoplasm. The outer layer is lined by an indistinct layer of basal cells with scant cytoplasm and small, ovoid nuclei. Oncocytic cystadenomas are a common variant, in which the lining is composed of columnar, oncocytic epithelium. [16]


Lymphadenomas are generally subcategorized as either sebaceous or nonsebaceous. Sebaceous lymphadenomas are more common and consist of solid-to-cystic proliferations of squamoid nests with varying degrees of sebaceous differentiation. One unique finding in sebaceous lymphadenomas is a granulomatous reaction to keratin and sebum in the surrounding lymphoid stroma. The epithelial component of nonsebaceous lymphadenomas is often basaloid in appearance, ranging from a solid to a tubulotrabecular growth pattern. [16]


Myoepitheliomas are composed primarily of spindle cells, plasmacytoid (hyaline) cells, or a combination of cells that grow in a solid, nodular, myxoid-mucinous, pseudoglandular, trabecular, or reticulated pattern. Epithelioid, clear cell, and oncocytic variants are less common pathologies.

The spindle cells are organized in sheets or swirls and have central oval to elongated nuclei with finely dispersed chromatin and blunt tapered ends. The plasmacytoid cells have glassy, dense eosinophilic cytoplasm and eccentric, round to oval nuclei. In comparison with other subsites, plasmacytoid variants are found more frequently in the palate. [16]


Oncocytomas are composed of polygonal oncocytes that may be arranged in a solid, a trabecular, and occasionally a compressed tubular growth pattern. Nuclei are round and vary from hyperchromatic to slightly vesicular with visible nucleoli. The periphery of tumor nests consists of darker cells with more scant cytoplasm. Squamous metaplasia may be seen in traumatized areas, particularly near an FNA tract. [16]

Pleomorphic adenoma

Pleomorphic adenomas have the following four components:

  • Capsule
  • Epithelial cells
  • Myoepithelial cells
  • Mesenchymal-stromal elements

Most of these tumors are composed of approximately 50% epithelial-myoepithelial cells and 50% mesenchymal-stromal elements. Tumors in which the percentage of epithelial-myoepithelial cells is 80% or higher are referred to as cellular pleomorphic adenomas, whereas those in which the percentage of mesenchymal-stromal elements is 80% or higher are referred to as acellular pleomorphic adenomas.

The epithelial cells are cuboidal to polygonal and appear as small ducts and acini surrounded by a single layer of myoepithelial cells. Tumor cells have eosinophilic to amphophilic cytoplasm and central, mildly chromatic nuclei with absent or barely discernible nucleoli. Skin adnexal differentiation is frequently observed in palate pleomorphic adenoma. [38]

Myoepithelial cells exhibit remarkable phenotypic variation and may appear spindled, plasmacytoid, epithelioid, clear, or oncocytic. The mesenchymal-stromal components range from fibrous to myxoid to chondroid to osseous to lipomatous. Mitoses and necroses are sparse to absent and may be related to prior FNA cytology. [16]

Necrotizing sialometaplasia

Necrotizing sialometaplasia is similar in appearance to pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia, which appears as epithelial infiltration into underlying tissue, much like the visualized pattern of a carcinoma. Features distinguishing this condition from a malignant process include the following:

  • Absence of cellular pleomorphism
  • Maintenance of salivary lobular morphology
  • Nondysplastic appearance of squamous islands or nests
  • Evidence of residual ductal lumina within the epithelial nests

Histologically, lymphoepithelial hyperplasia is composed of diffuse, well-organized lymphoid tissue and lymphocytic interstitial infiltrate with obliteration of the acinar pattern. [23]


Sialolipomas are admixed with lipomatous and salivary tissue as well as lobules of mature adipocytes.