What you need to know about thyroid nodules

Doctor examining a woman's thyroid in a doctors office.

The thyroid — the butterfly-shaped gland in the lower front of the neck — secretes hormones that play an important role throughout the body, from regulating metabolism, weight and temperature to controlling how fast our heart beats. But sometimes, cells in the gland grow abnormally and develop into lumps called nodules. In fact, women are four times as likely as men to develop one or more thyroid nodules.

You might not know you have them

Thyroid nodules are extremely common, but because these masses typically do not cause symptoms, most people are unaware they have them. Occasionally, nodules that grow too large can cause difficulty swallowing and, in rare cases, they can interfere with breathing.

"Although some nodules can be felt in the neck, many can only be detected through imaging," says Amit Bhojwani, DO, otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon with Main Line Health. "In fact, thyroid nodules are commonly found by accident while testing for other concerns."

Experts are unsure what causes thyroid nodules. However, they are more prevalent in people who have had radiation to the neck as well as those with a family history of thyroid cancer. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis — the most common form of hypothyroidism — is linked to greater risk of thyroid nodules. And they are increasingly common with age.

They can be harmless

Although it can be distressing to learn you have a thyroid nodule, keep in mind that the vast majority of nodules are not cancerous and do not affect thyroid function. If you learn you have a thyroid nodule, however, it’s important to have it checked.

Typically, your primary care physician or endocrinologist will order an ultrasound of your thyroid to evaluate its size, location and other characteristics. Based on the results, your physician may simply monitor the nodule for any changes with periodic ultrasound tests. If the nodule is suspicious, you may be referred for biopsy to determine if it is cancerous.

Treatment is available

No one wants to learn they have cancer. But thankfully, thyroid cancer is typically slow growing and treatment is highly effective.

"Thyroid cancer is not only very treatable, but often also curable," says Dr. Bhojwani, who specializes in surgical treatment of thyroid cancer. "Main Line Health has an experienced multidisciplinary team of specialists who can care for patients with thyroid cancer close to home."

Dr. Bhojwani and team work together to determine the best treatment plan for thyroid patients. This usually includes removing part or all of the thyroid gland and possibly surrounding lymph nodes. Additional treatment may include the use of radioactive iodine.

"It’s important to be aware of nodules, if you have them, and take action if you are diagnosed with cancer. We are here to help."

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Amit Bhojwani, DO
Learn more about ENT care at Main Line Health

Why (and how) you should eat healthy during cancer treatment