Your thyroid gland is one of the endocrine glands that makes hormones to regulate physiological functions in your body, like metabolism (heart rate, sweating, energy consumed). Other endocrine glands include the pituitary, adrenal, and parathyroid glands and specialized cells within the pancreas.
The thyroid gland is located in the middle of the lower neck, below the larynx (voice box) and wraps around the front half of the trachea (windpipe). It is shaped like a bow tie, just above the collarbones, having two halves (lobes) joined by a small tissue bar (isthmus.). You can’t always feel a normal thyroid gland.
Diseases of the thyroid gland are very common, affecting millions of Americans. The most common thyroid problems are:
- An overactive gland, called hyperthyroidism (e.g., Graves’ Disease, toxic adenoma or toxic nodular goiter)
- An underactive gland, called hypothyroidism (e.g., Hashimotos thyroiditis)
- Thyroid enlargement due to overactivity (as in Graves’ Disease) or from under-activity (as in hypothyroidism). An enlarged thyroid gland is often called a goiter.
How is a diagnosis made?
The diagnosis of a thyroid function abnormality or a thyroid mass is made by taking a medical history and a physical examination. In addition, blood tests and imaging studies or fine-needle aspiration may be required. As part of the exam, your doctor will examine your neck and ask you to lift up your chin to make your thyroid gland more prominent. You may be asked to swallow during the examination, which helps to feel the thyroid and any mass in it. Tests your doctor may order include:
- Evaluation of the larynx/vocal cords with a mirror or a fiberoptic telescope
- An ultrasound examination of your neck and thyroid
- Blood tests of thyroid function
- A radioactive thyroid scan
- A fine-needle aspiration biopsy
- A chest X-ray
- A CT or MRI scan
What treatment may be recommended?
Depending on the nature of your condition, treatment may include the following:
Thyroid hormone replacement pills
- Medication to block the effects of excessive production of thyroid hormone
- Radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid gland
- Surgical removal of the thyroid gland
WHAT IS THYROID SURGERY?
Thyroid surgery is an operation to remove part or all of the thyroid gland. It is performed in the hospital, and general anesthesia is usually required. Typically, the operation removes the lobe of the thyroid gland containing the lump and possibly the isthmus. A frozen section (immediate microscopic reading) may be used to determine if the rest of the thyroid gland should be removed during the same surgery.
Sometimes, based on the result of the frozen section, the surgeon may decide not to remove any additional thyroid tissue, or proceed to remove the entire thyroid gland, and/or other tissue in the neck. This decision is usually made in the operating room by the surgeon, based on findings at the time of surgery. Your surgeon will discuss these options with you preoperatively.
As an alternative, your surgeon may choose to remove only one lobe and await the final pathology report before deciding if the remaining lobe needs to be removed. There also may be times when the definite microscopic answer cannot be determined until several days after surgery. If a malignancy is identified in this way, your surgeon may recommend that the remaining lobe of the thyroid be removed at a second procedure. If you have specific questions about thyroid surgery, ask your otolaryngologist to answer them in detail.