Growths or lumps occasionally form on the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your throat. The thyroid produces hormones that control and regulate your body’s metabolism. It also helps keep your heart, brain, and organs functioning correctly and is essential for maintaining energy levels and a safe body temperature.
Thyroid nodules are relatively common, with Americans facing a 10% chance of nodule growth throughout their lifetime. Fortunately, most are benign (non-cancerous) and often don’t cause any symptoms. However, in some cases, thyroid nodules may be associated with thyroid cancer, pain, or other health problems.
In the past, patients required surgery to remove potentially harmful thyroid nodules. This posed risks to the patient’s quality of life, including damage to the thyroid tissue and nerve or vocal cord issues. However, recent medical breakthroughs mean there is now an alternative and less invasive treatment option: Radiofrequency ablation (RFA).
Signs You May Need Thyroid Nodule Treatment
Most thyroid nodules are harmless and don’t cause symptoms. However, thyroid nodules that cause pain, discomfort, and breathing issues may require this type of treatment.
Here are some signs that you may need thyroid nodule treatment:
- A visible lump or mass in the neck
- Difficulty swallowing or shortness of breath
- Persistent hoarseness or coughing
- Changes in voice tone and quality
- Enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter)
If you experience any of these symptoms, you must see your doctor for further evaluation. They will perform a physical exam and order blood tests to determine if you have an overactive or underactive thyroid.
Another medical breakthrough relating to the thyroid gland is using ultrasound to detect and diagnose problems. This procedure is usually conducted as a follow-up after a physical examination. The technology enables doctors to visually analyze and measure the gland, which can help identify a specific condition and determine an appropriate treatment plan.
A thyroidectomy or radiation therapy may be needed if blood or imaging tests detect cancer cells. This involves surgical removal of the cancerous tissue. Certain thyroid cancers have a minimal chance of growing and spreading to other parts of the body. There may be a period of observation to see if the cancer has spread before surgical intervention.
However, only 5% of nodules are cancerous. Most people with thyroid nodules can lead normal, healthy lives with proper diagnosis and treatment.
Breakthrough Treatment: Thyroid RFA
One of the biggest breakthroughs in thyroid nodule treatment is radiofrequency ablation (RFA). This treatment is designed for non-cancerous, benign nodules. While most thyroid nodules do not pose health risks, some grow to be large enough to compress the esophagus, causing pain or discomfort in the neck or jaw. Patients are often hesitant to have them surgically removed because of the associated risks and side effects.
RFA can be an effective treatment option for risk-averse patients. It is a minimally invasive procedure that uses heat transfer to eliminate harmful cells and shrink the nodules.
RFA is used to treat various medical conditions, including varicose veins and chronic back pain. However, it recently received FDA approval for thyroid nodules. It is now performed by leading physicians in the country’s most distinguished medical academic institutions, including John Hopkins, Stanford, and Columbia.
The RFA Procedure
The procedure only lasts between 15 and 60 minutes, depending on the volume and size of the nodules. Doctors or technicians perform the treatment using ultrasound guidance. This ensures precision execution and minimal discomfort for the patient.
The technician first applies a local anesthetic to the front of the patient’s neck. Grounding pads are attached to the patient’s legs to prevent electrical shocks. The patient lies flat on their back, resting their head and shoulders on a pillow to hyperextend their neck. They can breathe and talk normally throughout the entire procedure.
The technician places a thin needle into the neck with a wire attached that feeds electromagnetic waves to the electrode tip. Using the ultrasound as a guide, the technician moves the electrode to each nodule, releasing the waves which kill the nodule cells through heat transfer.
There is minimal risk of tissue damage during the procedure, leaving nominal levels of scarring. Patients rarely require thyroid medication afterward. Recovery time is fast, with most RFA recipients resuming regular activities within 24 hours. In the 12 months following the procedure, patients can expect nodules to reduce in size by 60% to 90%.
RFA is a safe procedure with minimal risk of complications compared to surgery, particularly in the long term. Clinical trials suggest that complications are most likely among high-risk patients and usually occur within a week. Several doctor follow-up visits are needed in the 12 months following the treatment to assess the procedure’s success and ensure full thyroid functionality. However, with a 3.3% complication rate, recovery is typically quick and seamless.
Some patients experience temporary hoarseness immediately after the treatment. However, this usually resolves within a couple of days. Other rare but possible risk factors include hypothyroidism, hematoma, infection, or mild skin burns.
Deciding Whether to Proceed With Breakthrough Treatment
RFA is a reliable treatment for patients who have benign, localized thyroid nodules. It is often chosen as an alternative treatment option for patients who do not want the risks associated with surgery. However, patients must undergo tests to check whether they are candidates for the procedure.
The health assessments required before a potential treatment procedure include two FNA biopsies to verify that target nodules are benign and inactive and one FNA biopsy to determine that overactive nodules are benign. Patients on anticoagulation medications are not eligible unless they can stop their medication safely in time for the procedure.
RFA is unsuitable for cancerous nodules. Patients who have undergone thyroid surgery or radiation therapy are also ineligible, as this increases the risk of complications, and scar tissue prevents accurate access to the underlying tissue.
It is also unsuitable for patients with pacemakers, severe heart disease, and pregnant women. Ineligible candidates must consider alternative treatments, like radioactive iodine therapy or thyroid medication.
Consult with Associated Endocrinologists About RFA
Benign thyroid nodules can have a negative impact on your quality of life, affecting your breathing or causing discomfort. Opting for RFA to treat nodules is a fast and effective solution for your symptoms. However, despite the speed and convenience of the procedure, it is a delicate treatment that licensed professionals in medical facilities must carry out.
At Associated Endocrinologists, we offer ultrasound-guided RFA treatment in our offices. Our experienced team of endocrinologists is licensed and trained to provide safe treatment. We are one of the first practices to offer this breakthrough interventional radiology treatment in Michigan.
Submit an online application form with any queries you have about the procedure. For further details, call us today.