A thyroid nodule is a growth of thyroid tissue or a fluid-filled cyst that forms a lump in the thyroid gland. Nodules are very common. The chances of developing nodules in the thyroid gland increase as you get older. Symptoms are not common, but a large nodule enough may cause pain or hoarseness, or get in the way of swallowing or breathing.
Doctors are concerned about thyroid nodules, because they can sometimes be cancerous. Thyroid cancer is found in about 8 percent of nodules in men (or 8 out of 100) and in 4% of nodules in women. Thus, about 90% of all thyroid nodules are benign (non-cancerous).
The cause of most benign nodules is not known, but they are often found in members of the same family. Worldwide, lack of iodine in the diet is a very common cause of nodules.
Most thyroid nodules are found during a routine physical exam. Sometimes the nodules are noted on an x-ray study that includes the neck. If a thyroid is found, your doctor will check a blood test to learn if the thyroid is functioning normally. Sometimes, a nodule can be associated with hyperthyroidism (producing too much thyroid hormone) or hypothyroidism (producing not enough thyroid hormone).
However, the blood tests are not enough to test for thyroid cancer. To gather more information about the nodule, your doctor might recommend one or more of the following tests:
Treatment depends on the type of thyroid nodule. If the fine needle aspiration shows cancerous or suspicious cells, experts usually recommend surgery to remove the thyroid gland. After surgery, radioactive iodine therapy may be used to destroy any remaining thyroid cells.
Some benign nodules may need to be removed with surgery if they are very big and are causing problems with swallowing or breathing. Most benign nodules are watched without surgery. Hyper-functioning nodules are almost never cancerous, but they may cause hyperthyroidism, too much thyroid hormone in the body—which can lead to health problems. These nodules may be surgically removed or treated with radioactive iodine.
If surgery is not recommended, your doctor needs to monitor the thyroid nodule every 6 to 12 months. This follow-up may involve a physical exam or a thyroid ultrasound or both. If the nodule gets larger, you may need to have a repeat fine needle biopsy.
If you think you have a thyroid nodule, see your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist (a specialist in hormone-related conditions) for diagnosis and treatment. Then get the recommended treatment and follow up with your doctor as needed.
The Hormone Health Network is the public education affiliate of the Endocrine Society dedicated to helping both patients and doctors find information on the prevention, treatment and cure of hormone-related conditions.
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