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Thyroid nodules

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Feb 1, 2024.

Overview

Thyroid nodules are solid or fluid-filled lumps that form within your thyroid, a small gland located at the base of your neck, just above your breastbone.

Most thyroid nodules aren't serious and don't cause symptoms. Only a small percentage of thyroid nodules are cancerous.

You often won't know you have a thyroid nodule until your doctor discovers it during a routine medical exam. Or your doctor may uncover it during a scan that was done for another health reason. Some thyroid nodules, however, may become large enough to be visible or make it difficult to swallow or breathe.

Treatment options depend on the type of thyroid nodule you have.

Thyroid gland

The thyroid gland is located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam's apple.

Symptoms

Most thyroid nodules don't cause signs or symptoms. But occasionally some nodules become so large that they can:

In some cases, thyroid nodules produce additional thyroxine, a hormone secreted by your thyroid gland. The extra thyroxine can cause symptoms of an overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), such as:

Only a small number of thyroid nodules are cancerous. But determining which nodules are cancerous can't be done by evaluating your symptoms alone. Most cancerous thyroid nodules are slow growing and may be small when your doctor discovers them. Aggressive thyroid cancers are rare with nodules that may be large, firm, fixed and rapid growing.

When to see a doctor

Although most thyroid nodules are noncancerous and don't cause problems, ask your doctor to evaluate any unusual swelling in your neck, especially if you have trouble breathing or swallowing. It's important to evaluate the possibility of cancer.

Seek medical care if you develop signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism, such as:

Also see your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may mean your thyroid gland isn't making enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), which include:

Causes

Several conditions can cause nodules to develop in your thyroid gland, including:

Thyroid nodules

Enlargement of the thyroid can expand the gland well beyond its typical size and cause a noticeable bulge in the neck. This can be caused by single or multiple nodules (lumps) in the thyroid or by an autoimmune process.

Complications

Complications associated with some thyroid nodules include:

Diagnosis

In assessing a lump or nodule in your neck, one of your doctor's main goals is to rule out the possibility of cancer. But your doctor will also want to know if your thyroid is functioning properly. Tests include:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of thyroid nodule you have.

Treating benign nodules

If a thyroid nodule isn't cancerous, treatment options include:

Treating nodules that cause hyperthyroidism

If a thyroid nodule is producing thyroid hormones, overloading your thyroid gland's normal hormone production levels, your doctor may recommend treating you for hyperthyroidism. This may include:

Treating cancerous nodules

Treatment for a nodule that's cancerous usually involves surgery.

Preparing for your appointment

If you see or feel a thyroid nodule yourself — usually in the middle of your lower neck, just above your breastbone — call your primary care doctor for an appointment to evaluate the lump.

Often, your doctor may discover thyroid nodules during a routine medical exam. Sometimes, your doctor detects a thyroid nodule when you have an imaging test, such as an ultrasound, CT or MRI scan, to evaluate another condition in your head or neck. Nodules detected this way are usually smaller than those found during a physical exam.

Once your doctor detects a thyroid nodule, you're likely to be referred to a doctor trained in endocrine disorders (endocrinologist). To get the most from your appointment, try these suggestions:

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