Your thyroid is critical for regulating many of your daily bodily functions, such as heart rate, libido, reproduction, and digestion. It helps your body maintain homeostasis by releasing hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine into your bloodstream.
The thyroid gland is composed of a left and right lobe connected in the middle, which extends in a butterfly shape at the base of the neck, underneath the larynx. If your thyroid is functioning normally, you shouldn’t be able to feel it externally. However, if you have developed thyroid nodules, you may be able to feel lumps on your neck, depending on the nodules’ size.
It is critical to monitor your thyroid health with regular visits to your physician so they can check your thyroid for the presence of nodules.
What are Thyroid Nodules?
Thyroid nodules occur when unusual cell growth creates a lump in one of the lobes. These lumps can be solid or fluid-filled, in which case they are referred to as cysts.
It is estimated that approximately 50% of Americans will have a thyroid nodule by the time they reach 60. Most thyroid nodules are benign, and many are asymptomatic; however, larger nodules can indicate thyroid cancer.
What Size of Thyroid Nodule is a Cause for Concern?
Most thyroid nodules don’t cause health issues; you may not know that they are there unless your doctor notices them during a routine check-up. However, once they grow beyond a certain size, they may cause adverse symptoms or conditions like hyper- or hypothyroidism.
A small nodule with a diameter of less than 1cm is often benign, but if it reaches a size greater than 2 cm, there is an increased risk of cancer. Thyroid nodules greater than 4 cm in diameter have a 15% likelihood of becoming cancerous, according to one study cited by The American Thyroid Association.
Other rarer conditions, such as papillary or follicular carcinomas, are linked with nodules of this size.
Even non-cancerous nodules can become harmful when they grow large enough to cause discomfort when swallowing or obstruct airways. If you find it difficult to eat or breathe due to discomfort or pain in your thyroid region, notify your doctor immediately.
Diagnosing and Measuring Thyroid Nodules
If you feel a lump at the base of your neck or one becomes visible on your skin, contact your primary care doctor to have it assessed. If they believe intervention is needed, they may refer you to an endocrinologist to determine if the nodule is cancerous.
At Associated Endocrinologists, we have two methods to evaluate the health of thyroid nodules: a thyroid/neck ultrasound or a fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNA).
A thyroid ultrasound only takes about 10 minutes. Sound waves are emitted by a hand-held transducer, which is passed over the thyroid. These sound waves travel through the skin and are bounced back to the transducer when they hit soft tissue or bone, creating an image of the thyroid. This test is inexpensive, accurate, and pain-free, with results available on the same day.
An ultrasound can show the thyroid’s position, shape, size, content, and vascular pattern. The doctor can also take linear measurements of the thyroid’s lobes and measure the thyroid’s volume. This can help your doctor evaluate any abnormal tissue, such as nodules.
Fine needle aspiration biopsy
An FNA biopsy is a reliable non-surgical procedure that can distinguish between benign and cancerous nodules. Individuals with nodules that have displayed worrying characteristics, such as increased size or risk factors like a family history of thyroid cancer, may be prescribed an FNA biopsy procedure if an ultrasound detects an abnormality.
Your doctor injects an anesthetic into the treatment area to prepare for an FNA. Then, using an ultrasound as a guidance tool, they carefully insert a needle into the gland and remove a small sample of thyroid cells. The process may be repeated several times to gather a large enough sample. The material from your glands is sent to a laboratory for an in-depth examination.
You may feel some discomfort or pressure during your FNA as the needle enters your throat, and the area could remain sore for up to 24 hours after the procedure. You can use an ice pack to alleviate any discomfort or swelling.
Two popular treatments for thyroid nodules are Radioactive Iodine Therapy and Thyroid Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA). At Associated Endocrinologists, we are proud to be one of the first providers of RFA in Michigan.
RFA is a non-invasive, non-surgical procedure approved by the FDA, which uses alternating electric currents to generate heat inside a thyroid nodule. This heat kills the cells inside the nodule, and the nodule itself shrinks dramatically over the next few months. The entire procedure is carried out without damaging healthy thyroid cells.
If you are concerned about the presence of nodule growths in your thyroid, contact one of our Michigan practices via our online form to book a thyroid ultrasound or fine needle aspiration biopsy with our team of endocrinologists.