The term thyroid nodule refers to any abnormal growth forming a lump in the thyroid gland, which is located low in the front of the neck, below the thyroid cartilage which forms the Adam’s apple. This butterfly-shaped gland is one of the largest endocrine glands in the human body and one of the most important ones at the same time, as it controls how quickly the body uses energy and makes proteins. It also controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones. What happens when thyroid nodules appear, though? Here is an overview that will help you better understand these lumps.
What are thyroid nodules?
Thyroid nodules are solid or fluid-filled lumps or growths that form within the thyroid. Most nodules of the kind are not cancerous and do not cause any problems. More often than not, they do not even require treatment. However, they should still be examined by a doctor because they can release too much of the thyroid hormone, therefore suppressing the rest of the gland. A thyroid nodule can occur in any part of the gland. Some can be easily felt, while others can be hidden in the depth of the thyroid tissue or very low in the gland.
What are the causes and risk groups?
The cause of thyroid nodules remains uncertain. However, it has been shown that these nodules tend to run in the family, so if you have a history of thyroid nodules in your family, the chances of you developing them are higher.
There have also been some connections between the development of benign (non-cancerous) thyroid nodules and the following conditions:
- Multinodular goiter — an overall enlargement of the thyroid gland;
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis — which can cause hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland);
- Thyroid cysts — blood or colloid-filled nodules that are often associated with thyroid pain.
Also, there are certain risk categories who are likely to develop the nodules. These include:
- elderly people — old people are at risk of developing them;
- females — women are more likely than men to develop them;
- people who have been exposed to radiation — exposure to environmental radiation or radiation treatment to the head, neck and chest areas increase the chances of developing them;
- people with iodine deficiency — although rare in the US, this condition is common in areas where iodine is not added to salt, water and food.
What are the symptoms?
Most people with thyroid nodules do not even know they have them, since these nodules tend to be small and unnoticeable. If the nodule is big, you will be able to feel it. If you have a thyroid nodule, you might also experience:
- pain in your throat, feeling like your throat is full;
- trouble breathing;
- hoarseness of the voice;
- difficulty swallowing;
- nervousness, fast heartbeat, weight loss, abundant sweat — these are all symptoms of hyperthyroidism;
- tiredness, depression, memory problems, constipation, dry skin, feeling cold — these are all symptoms of hypothyroidism.
How are thyroid nodules diagnosed?
Typically, thyroid nodules are discovered by accident when performing a routine physical examination of the neck. Since the modules are not easy to feel and do not usually cause any symptoms, most people do not feel them on their own. The nodules can also be found when undergoing a CT scan or ultrasound for another reason.
When discovering a thyroid nodule, the doctor must carefully examine it in order to rule out the possibility of it being cancerous. For that to happen, s/he will have to perform some tests, such as:
- a blood test checking the thyroid hormone level in the body;
- a thyroid scan using radioactive material to see how the gland is working;
- fine-needle aspiration checking the nodule for cancer;
- a thyroid ultrasound to see the number and size of nodules.
How can thyroid nodules be treated?
Since they are not dangerous, most thyroid nodules do not require any special treatment besides monitoring them. Depending on the case, though, the doctor may prescribe one of the following treatments:
- anti-thyroid medication;
- thyroid hormone suppression therapy;
- radioactive iodine;
Prevalence and prevention
Even though thyroid nodules are the most common endocrine problem in the US, the vast majority of these nodules are benign. They are most common in females, but the risk of these nodules being cancerous is higher with men. Exposure to radiation also increases the risk of the nodule being malignant.
Thyroid nodules cannot be prevented, but the American Thyroid Association recommends that all adults be tested starting at age 35 and continuing every 5 years. High-risk individuals may want to be screened more often, though.
These are the basic things to know about thyroid nodules. If you notice a lump in your neck, there is usually no reason to panic, so head to the doctor’s office before presuming it is cancerous.