The thyroid is a complex system that is involved in numerous bodily processes. Because it is so highly integrated even minor changes can have an impact on various functions. One way that the thyroid may be pushed out of balance is through the development of thyroid nodules.
These small growths can be solid masses or liquid-filled cysts that can reduce or increase thyroid hormone in your system. You would expect that you must have a thyroid-related condition to develop such masses. Interestingly, thyroid nodules are common and do not require a malfunctioning thyroid.
It is estimated that one in 15 women and approximately one in 50 men have a thyroid nodule! Furthermore, multiple medical experts estimate that most people will develop at least one thyroid nodule by the time they are 50 years of age.
With thyroid nodules being such a common occurrence it is important that one be aware of the different types of nodules, the associated symptoms, and treatments for each type.
Know Your Nodules
There are four different categories of thyroid nodules, benign, malignant, suspicious, and inconclusive. Over 90 percent of thyroid nodules do not pose a serious threat and fall into the benign category. However, this does not mean you should simply ignore a thyroid nodule if you discover one. An estimated 5 percent of thyroid nodules are expected to be cancerous or malignant.
Although size does not dictate what category a thyroid nodule belongs to, malignant thyroid nodules tend to be larger masses that expand aggressively. Fortunately, even if you are diagnosed with a malignant nodule, thyroid cancer is widely considered to be treatable and maintains a high rate of survival.
Thyroid nodules that return a diagnosis of suspicious or inconclusive require further examination. Suspicious nodules present signs and signals that they may be cancerous but there is not enough evidence to be certain. If you are diagnosed with a suspicious nodule, you will likely be asked to return for testing or observation to ensure that it does not develop into a more serious issue. If a biopsy is not possible, most doctors recommend surgical removal of a suspicious thyroid nodule to proactively remove a potential problem. In a similar fashion, if an inconclusive thyroid nodule cannot be biopsied for proper testing, some physicians may recommend surgical removal.
Recognizing Thyroid Nodules
In some cases, thyroid nodules can increase to a size that causes them to become visible through the skin. These are usually manifested as a small bump or lump around the neck area. Those who discover these on their own should notify their doctor to acquire proper testing to ensure it is not malignant.
Expansion of the thyroid, or goiter, can also result from thyroid nodules. This growth is easily seen via x-ray, ultrasound, and physically as a notable enlargement around the neck.
Some may develop multinodular goiters, which can be identified by the multiple distinct nodules located within the same region. Goiters are known to cause neck tenderness, restrict the windpipe resulting in coughing and shortness of breath, and sensations of constriction. Generally, nodules and goiters are caused by iodine deficiency – learn more about the importance of iodine here.
Other common causes of goiters are autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis which lead to inflammation and swelling of the thyroid.
Depending on your thyroid function and the type of nodule that is produced, you can experience a variety of symptoms. Usually these symptoms correlate with hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, or alternate between the two.
Other common symptoms of thyroid nodules include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sensations of fullness
- Pain or pressure around the neck
- Lost voice
- Neck tenderness
Although many symptoms can be caused by thyroid nodules most people do not experience easily recognizable symptoms. This is another reason why it is important to schedule and attend your regular check-ups to ensure that your thyroid is functioning at its best and any abnormalities are recognized early.
Treatment Options for Thyroid Nodules
Depending on the type of nodule that has developed there are various approaches to treatment.
Benign thyroid nodules are commonly treated with thyroid hormone to inhibit growth and help shrink the nodule. If a nodule is overproducing thyroid hormone, they are considered toxic and are usually treated with antithyroid medication or radioactive iodine treatment. If none of the above methods prove to be effective, surgical removal may be recommended.
For inconclusive or suspicious thyroid nodules, if a repeat biopsy is not possible, surgical removal of the nodule us usually the recommended treatment option. In some cases, doctors may delay surgery in lieu of further observation and testing.
Malignant and cancerous thyroid nodules are usually removed surgically soon after they are recognized. This allows doctors to evaluate the state of the thyroid during the process and remove a larger portion of the thyroid, or the entire gland, if deemed necessary. The procedure for removal of a thyroid nodule is generally not complicated and has a relatively quick recovery period. Most people require less than two weeks to recover fully.
Keep Note of the Nodules
Even though thyroid nodules are frequently benign it is important to be knowledgeable of these abnormal growths. Recognizing the various types of thyroid nodules and their impact on your body can allow you to acquire effective and timely treatment before a more serious condition develops.
Protect your health by informing your doctor of any abnormal growths and having your thyroid checked regularly!