Thyroid Nodules Overview: What They Are, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnoses and Treatments

Thyroid Nodules: A Guide To Symptoms, Causes And More

The Thyroid gland forms part of the endocrine system within the human body and is responsible for the secretion of particular hormones, including L-thyroxine, also known as tetraiodothyronine, and L-triiodothyronine1.

The primary purpose of these hormones lies within the regulation of metabolic processes in the human body.

Conditions affecting Thyroid gland function can lead to the secretion of inadequate or excessive hormones.

In turn, unwanted symptoms can develop, making life more difficult for a patient due to fatigue, possible weight gain and more.

Thyroid nodules are relatively common amongst the general population, affected the majority of women at an older age, and often do not present any particular dangers to the wellbeing of the patient.

An examination of Thyroid nodules is recommended, even though they do not present a particular threat in most cases, as cancerous cells may be present in a small number of patients who develop this condition.

The purpose of this post is to discuss what Thyroid nodules are and why they develop, as well as take a look at the particular symptoms that patients need to be aware of.

Furthermore, we will look at how Thyroid nodules are diagnosed by a medical professional, and consider the particular treatment options that are available to assist with treating the condition and alleviating the possible symptoms that a patient may be suffering from.

An Overview Of Thyroid Nodules

When it comes to describing Thyroid nodules, an important fact that should be taken into account is that the term “Thyroid nodules” is broad – the term is really used to describe any type of tissue overgrowth of the Thyroid gland2.

These nodules can develop anywhere in the Thyroid gland and do not always cause any symptoms at all. In many patients, Thyroid nodules may exist without them every knowing about it – these nodules can be hidden with the tissue of the Thyroid. Nodules that develop at the lower part of the Thyroid gland are also often not visible and most people are unable to feel these nodules either.

In the United States, Thyroid nodules are considered to be the most prevalent condition to affect the endocrine system. Approximately 30% of women and their adult years are expected to have nodules in their Thyroid that can be detected through the use of an ultrasound test. As much as 8% of women and 2% of men in adulthood have Thyroid nodules that a health professional can identify through a physical examination.

The majority of nodules that develop within the Thyroid gland is considered harmful and benign, which means they are not cancerous and not particularly harmful to the patient’s overall wellbeing, or their Thyroid function. It is, however, important to note that approximately 10% of Thyroid nodules do turn out to be cancerous. For this reason, it is important not to take the presence of a nodule in the Thyroid lightly.

A physical examination should be obtained once symptoms of this condition aredetected, which will help to determine whether the nodule is cancerous and poses any potential harm to the patient.

Causes Of Thyroid Nodules

There are numerous factors that can cause Thyroid nodules3. A common cause for the development of a Thyroid nodule is an overgrowth of the tissue found within the Thyroid gland. The particular reason why this sometimes happen is not yet clear to medical experts. The condition is called Thyroid adenoma. It should be noted that Thyroid adenoma is not considered a serious condition as the excess tissue is not cancerous.

Thyroiditis, a condition that causes chronic inflammation within Thyroid tissue, is another potential cause for Thyroid nodules. The most common health condition that causes thyroiditis as a symptom is Hashimoto’s disease, a condition that can cause issues with overall Thyroid function.

Other factors that may also contribute to the development of Thyroid nodules:

  • In some patients, a Thyroid nodule may be brought on by a deficiency in Iodine in their daily diet. Iodine is vital for the function of the Thyroid gland, is forms part of the two primary hormones secreted by this gland.
  • A cyst that forms in the Thyroid can also be a cause of Thyroid nodules. In such a case, a cavity becomes filled with fluids, which then causes an enlargement in the particular area of the Thyroid gland that has been affected. The majority of Thyroid cysts that form are benign, but there are some rare cases where the cysts may contain cancerous cells.

In addition to the causes we have mentioned above, we should also note that Thyroid cancer can be a cause for the development of Thyroid nodules. The risk that a nodule in the Thyroid gland is cancerous is particularly small, but should still be considered a possibility prior to obtaining an official diagnosis.

Risk Factors Of Thyroid Nodules

In addition to understanding the causes of Thyroid nodules, a further understanding of the risk factors can help a particular patient determine their chances of developing this condition at some point in their lives.

One review paper4 explains that women are at a significantly higher risk of developing Thyroid nodules than men, and that a deficiency in Iodine within a patient’s daily diet also causes an increase in their risk of developing this condition.

A study5 conducted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Hospital also found that two additional risk factors that the general population needs to be more wary of is weight and smoking.

They found that both of these factors play a significant role in a particular patient’s risk of developing Thyroid nodules at some point in their lifetime, and that quitting smoking, as well as achieving a healthy body weight, can assist with reducing the risk of Thyroid nodules.

Symptoms Of Thyroid Nodules

A primary concern in the healthcare industry regarding Thyroid nodules is the fact that they often do not present any troublesome symptoms, especially if they are not visible. This is quite problematic since a small number of these nodules can be cancerous, and when cancer is detected at an early stage, treatment is more successful.

Still, there are some particular symptoms that individuals should be wary of. These will help them to identify the possibility of having developing a nodule in their Thyroid tissue.

Possible symptoms that a patient may experience when they have a Thyroid nodule may include:

  • As the nodule grows in size, a patient may find that they experience difficulties with their normal ability to swallow and breathe.
  • Some patients may also notice changes in their voice, as well as hoarseness.
  • Pain symptoms that develop in the neck may also be a sign of Thyroid nodules.
  • In some patients, a goiter, which is a term that refers to a Thyroid gland that becomes enlarged, may also develop.

Possible Complications Of Thyroid Nodules

In most patients, the diagnosis of Thyroid nodules is of no significant concern. The condition is usually harmless and does not pose any significant threats to the patient’s health, or their Thyroid function. There are, however, cases where Thyroid nodules may cause complications and issues.

One of the most concerning complications of a Thyroid nodule would be the possibility that the nodule contains cancerous cells. In such a case, undiagnosed, the cancer may spread to other parts of the body, including the blood, and lead to life-threatening complications.

This is one of the most important reasons why any lumps or enlargements within the throat should be checked out by a doctor as soon as they are noticed – even if the overgrowth is not cancerous, it is better to be safe.

In addition to the possibility that cancer may be present in a Thyroid nodule, it should be noted that, in some cases, the overgrowth of Thyroid tissue may cause the production of Thyroid hormones to increase. This may lead to a complication known as Hyperthyroidism, a condition where there are too much Thyroid hormones in the body.

Symptoms associated with Hyperthyroidism include6:

  • Irratibility
  • Nervousness
  • Increased perspiration (sweating)
  • An increase in heartrate
  • Symptoms associated with anxiety
  • Hand tremors
  • Thinning skin
  • Thinning Hair
  • Brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness
  • Insomnia

When these symptoms are present, a patient should seek a physical examination from a doctor. They may be an indication that the patient’s Thyroid is overactive, and may also be a sign that excess Thyroid tissue has grown and is causing more Thyroid hormones to be produced.

Diagnosis Of Thyroid Nodules

Due to the possibility that cancer may be present in a Thyroid nodule, patients are advised to obtain an examination and possibly additional tests should they notice any of the symptoms associated with the condition, as well as when symptoms of Hyperthyroidism present themselves.

Before a Thyroid nodule can be diagnosed, it has to be detected first. In some cases, the overgrowth may become large enough to be observed from the outside or easily felt when a hand is placed on the throat. A doctor may also detect the presence of a Thyroid nodule during a routine checkup with a patient.

In some cases, a Thyroid nodule may also be detected after an ultrasound test has been conducted for another purpose.

Once the Thyroid nodule has been detected, further tests will usually be carried out in order to determine whether it is causing problems with Thyroid function7, as well as to determine if the nodule contains any cancerous cells. Thyroid function tests may be performed in order to determine whether excess Thyroid hormones are being produced by the extra Thyroid tissue that has developed. Fine-needle aspiration, a type of biopsy, is often also conducted in order to determine whether cancerous cells are present in the nodule.

Treatment Options For Thyroid Nodules

There are different treatment options that a patient may be provided with should they be diagnosed with a Thyroid nodule. If the nodule seems to be of no concern, contain no cancerous activity and does not interfere with Thyroid function, then a healthcare professional may recommend leaving the nodule as it is for the time being.

Frequent checkups can be arranged in order to ensure the nodule does not become a problem, however.

Should cancerous activity be detected in a Thyroid nodule, a patient may be advised to have the excess Thyroid tissue removed through surgical intervention. The survival rate of Thyroid-related cancer is high. A review paper by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center8 explains that the survival rate of this particular cancer is over 95%. Early treatment is highly recommended, which is why both men and women should frequently visit a doctor for a checkup.

This may help to detect cancerous Thyroid nodules at an early stage, and also lead to a higher chance that the treatment options will be less invasive and more successful.

Conclusion

Thyroid function is vital for metabolic functions through the human body, and plays a role in numerous essential functions that occur within the body.

Numerous factors can interfere with the function of the Thyroid gland, which can lead to unpleasant symptoms developing. Thyroid nodules are common and often does not cause significant symptoms. In most cases, these nodules are considered harmful.

In some patients, however, Thyroid nodules may contain cancerous cells. A physical examination, combined with certain tests, can assist a healthcare professional in determining whether a nodule affects a particular patient’s Thyroid function, and whether any concern should be raised regarding the possibility that the nodule may be cancerous.

References

1 Multiple Authors. Thyroid Hormone Synthesis And Secretion. Endotext. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK285550/

2 Robert Ferry. Thyroid Nodules. MedicineNet.com. https://www.medicinenet.com/thyroid_nodules/article.htm#what_is_the_prevalence_of_thyroid_nodules_and_cancer

3 Thyroid nodules. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/thyroid-nodules/symptoms-causes/syc-20355262

4 Dean D.S., Gharib H. Epidemiology of thyroid nodules. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 22 December 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19041821

5 Multiple Authors. The Prevalence of Thyroid Nodules and an Analysis of Related Lifestyle Factors in Beijing Communities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 22 April 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4847104/

6 Hyperthyroidism (Overactive). American Thyroid Association. https://www.thyroid.org/hyperthyroidism/

7 Thyroid Nodules – Diagnosis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/thyroid-nodules/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355266

8 N. Gopalakrishna Lyer and A.R. Shaha. Management of Thyroid Nodules and Surgery for Differentiated Thyroid Cancer. HHS Public Access. 24 March 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4806860/

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