The thyroid gland is a small organ located at the front of the neck right below the larynx (Adam’s apple). The gland is shaped like a butterfly with two separate lobes and wraps itself around the trachea (windpipe). As a component of the endocrine system, the thyroid is responsible for releasing hormones (T3, T4, and calcitonin) into the bloodstream which help regulate metabolism, heart rate, body temperature, and blood calcium levels.
On many occasions, abnormal growths or lumps can develop on the thyroid gland. These are called thyroid nodules. Thyroid nodules can be solid or fluid filled. They can be found isolated or grouped with other nodules. Under most circumstances, thyroid nodules do not cause symptoms and go unnoticed to the patient. In rare cases, a nodule will become excessively large, and symptoms will develop, including difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, neck pain, or enlargement of the neck. Thyroid nodules are often found incidentally during routine examination or on imaging studies (MRI, CT, US) that are obtained for unrelated reasons, but these nodules will still need to be evaluated to ensure that they will not cause any problems. An abnormal thyroid function test may also indicate whether a nodule is present. Thyroid function tests measure the blood levels of T3, T4, and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). It is also important to know whether the thyroid hormone levels are normal, or higher or lower than expected, which can affect body function.
Although most thyroid nodules are consistent with benign disease (>90%), additional evaluation is important to ensure that that there is not anything more worrisome occurring. The first step in evaluation after physical examination is obtaining a neck/thyroid ultrasound, which gives accurate measurements of the size, shape and other important characteristics of the thyroid gland and any nodules that may be present. An ultrasound is a quick painless procedure that will give detailed information about the presence, number, size, and location of any thyroid nodules. Depending on the results, additional evaluation may be necessary. For nodules that are consider large (typically greater than 1-1.5 centimeter), a specialized biopsy technique called a fine needle aspirate (FNA) is often recommended to rule out worrisome findings. In many cases, an FNA is performed under ultrasound guidance, ensuring better accuracy. FNA results will often demonstrate whether or not a nodule is benign (harmless) or malignant (cancerous). When FNA results are indeterminate (uncertain), additional assessment is often necessary. A new technique that has recently been used to better determine the chance of malignancy in this situation is a specialized “genetic test”, which can help us place patients in low or high risk categories when previously we were unable to make an assessment. In those patients with nodules that are cancerous or high risk, we would recommend surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid gland.
Recent guidelines from the American Thyroid Association has shown that for some less aggressive thyroid cancers, removing only part of the thyroid gland may be appropriate, allow for quicker healing, less need for medications postoperatively, and afford similarly high cure rates.
If you or a family member have any concern regarding head and neck symptoms, please do not hesitate to contact Colden &Seymour Ear, Nose, Throat, and Allergy to schedule and examination.