What are the risks of a thyroid nodule?

The thyroid is located at the front of the neck and is often described as a butterfly-shaped organ. It produces several hormones which act as driver and clock for our body. Thyroid hormones influence the body’s metabolism, growth and development as well as the body’s energy balance. Thus, if the hormone production of the thyroid is out of balance, it can impact and disrupt a wide range of processes in the body. Certain circumstances and conditions can lead to the development of lumps in the thyroid. Thyroid nodules are usually benign (noncancerous) tumors which develop from thyroid cells are very common in clinical practice.

Unrecognized and hidden thyroid nodules

In many cases, thyroid nodules are very small in size and are located some distance from sensitive structures like the trachea. In those cases, thyroid nodules are usually asymptomatic, and patients are unaware of their existence. Thus, only 4-7% of the US adult population have demonstrable lumps, whereas detectable lumps with ultrasound occur in more than 50% of the population above the age of 60. These nodules are typically diagnosed by chance when patients are examined with an imaging test for other medical reasons. However, as the vast majority of thyroid nodules are benign, these “hidden” lumps do not bear any considerable risk and are often left for observation rather than treatment even after discovery.

Symptomatic thyroid nodules

When thyroid nodules become larger they can cause various symptoms and discomfort. Symptoms usually occur due to the lump exerting pressure on sensitive structures in the neck. These are felt as compression or pain, occasionally even difficulty with breathing or swallowing. These complications need to be taken seriously and consultation with a doctor to discuss treatment options are advised.

Moreover, hot nodules can lead to an overproduction of hormone and thereby cause hyperthyroidism. The excess amount of hormone can lead to significant disruption of the balance of metabolism. Symptoms are divers and include anxiety, restlessness, tremors, agitation, sweating, unusual weight loss and increased heart rate.
When hormone production reaches an extreme, the disease can become dangerous which is why any suspicion should be discussed with a physician. Especially, in older people excessive hormones can lead to irregular heart rhythms and even heart failure if left untreated.

How do thyroid nodules appear?

Thyroid nodules and cancer

The risk of a thyroid nodule being malignant is very low. Less than 5% of nodules turn out to be malignant. However, whenever a nodule is diagnosed it is standard procedure to carry out in-depth diagnosis in order to clearly classify whether the lump is malignant or not. Several diagnostic tools help physicians to assess the risk of a nodule and decide upon the best treatment regime. Nodules that have been identified as benign rarely change into cancerous structures. Nevertheless, it is common that physicians decide to observe diagnosed nodules and conduct occasional testing to rule out any chance of malignant disease.

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