Thyroid nodules are rarely severe, but in some cases, they can be cancerous. Symptoms of the nodules generally do not occur, but if the nodules are large, symptoms and complications can be present.
Although a small percentage of thyroid nodules are related to thyroid cancer, most thyroid nodules are not a cause for serious concern. Thyroid nodules are fluid filled lumps that form on the thyroid glands at the base of the neck. They are rarely noticeable and are most often diagnosed by a doctor during routine examinations. In some cases, though, the nodules can become large enough to produce complications. Symptoms of thyroid nodules can vary, depending on the size; however, a common symptom is pressure on the windpipe.
While most nodules don't produce any symptoms, large nodules can cause swelling at the base of the neck. Large nodules can become large enough they are easily felt. In severe cases, they can cause pressure on the windpipe, which can cause difficulty swallowing and shortness of breath.
It’s not uncommon for the nodules to produce a hormone known as thyroxine. This hormone is normally secreted from the thyroid gland. When the hormone is produced in excess other symptoms of thyroid nodules can begin to occur. These additional symptoms include unexplained and sudden weight loss, a rapid or irregular heart beat and nervousness.
In some cases, thyroid nodules can be cancerous. When the nodules are cancerous, they generally grow large and quickly. Cancerous nodules can’t be diagnosed based off of the symptoms they produce.
Although most cases of thyroid nodules are basically harmless, they can cause complications if left untreated. Large nodules can cause problems with swallowing and breathing. This occurs when the thyroid gland becomes enlarged.
Hyperthyroidism can occur as well, if the nodule produces the thyroid hormone. If hyperthyroidism occurs, sudden weight loss and muscle weakness can also occur. Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include heat intolerance, irritability and anxiousness. If this condition remains untreated, complications with the heart can occur, as well as osteoporosis and thyrotxic crisis.
If thyroid cancer is present, surgery is needed to remove the cancerous tissue. When surgery is performed, the thyroid gland is removed. As a result, hormone replacement therapy will be needed for the remainder of the patient's life. If the cancer is diagnosed and treated early, the long term prognosis is promising.
In order to diagnose the severity of thyroid nodules, a number of tests are conducted. A physical examination will be performed, as well as a thyroid function test. Thyroid function tests measure the levels of thyroid hormones, as well as the hormones released by the pituitary gland. Imaging techniques, such as ultrasounds, are also used, and a fine-needle aspiration biopsy may be conducted to determine whether or not the nodules are cancerous. In some cases a thyroid scan will also be performed.