The thyroid gland is a butterfly shaped gland located at the base of your neck, above the breastbone. Despite its small size and weight, it is one of the most important glands in the human body due to its many functions. The thyroid gland has two separate lobes and usually it is impossible to manually reach it unless it has an increased size caused by a condition. The thyroid uses the iodine from the food we take in order to produce its important hormones – triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones are very important to the overall well-being and have the following functions:
- Regulating the rate at which calories are burned, which affects weight gain or loss
- Regulating the heart rate
- Raising or lowering the body temperature
- Influencing the digestive tract and the absorption of nutritive substances
- Controlling the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and lipids
- Controlling the muscle contractions
- Affecting each cell and its reactions to other organic substances and hormones
- Affecting dying cells and the rate at which they are replaced
The thyroid also produces another hormone called calcitonin. It has a very important role in managing the calcium levels and therefore affecting bone density, muscle contractions, blood vessels and coagulation of the blood, and so on.
Thyroid nodules can be formed anywhere within the thyroid gland. They consist of solid substance or fluid. They can have different forms and sizes. Fortunately, many people who are healthy also have thyroid nodules without any pathological causes and changes to the function of the gland. This is why if you have been diagnosed with thyroid nodules there is no need to immediately worry about serious conditions. Many patients have nodules from their early adulthood until old age without developing any conditions.
Most of the thyroid nodules are discovered by a routine medical exam. Only a very small percentage of all thyroid nodules are caused by metastases or the onset of cancer of the thyroid. Most of the time biopsy may be needed in order to confirm this diagnosis.
To this day, there are no solid proofs of the exact causes of thyroid nodules in every patient. However, there are many factors that are proved to be related with a certain chance of developing thyroid nodules. The most common ones are the following:
- Deficiency of iodine in the diet. The thyroid needs iodine in order to produce its hormones at the rate the body needs them. Every dysfunction in the rate of thyroid hormones can cause the onset of compensatory mechanisms and thyroid nodules are an example of these mechanisms. Iodine deficiency is quite rare, especially in developed countries. Therefore, this factor is not that common compared to others when it comes to developing thyroid nodules.
- An increased amount of normal thyroid tissue. It is a condition that is quite common among patients with thyroid problems, but it is not harming unless the size of the thyroid is increased significantly and affecting other structures around it. It could also protrude from the neck forming a lump, which causes cosmetic problems. There are no defined reasons for the development of this condition often referred to as thyroid adenoma. However, it is possible the overgrowth of normal tissue in the thyroid and the formation of thyroid nodules to exceed the normal production of thyroid hormones causing hyper function of the gland.
- Thyroid cyst. Cysts are cavities within the tissue that are filled with fluid. Most of the times these cysts are formed when thyroid adenomas degenerate. It is possible to have a mixture of fluid and solid components within the cyst. Sometimes several cysts can be found within a single thyroid gland also together with thyroid nodules of other types. Further inspection is needed of each cyst because it is possible some of the solid components to be malignant. However, the majority of thyroid cysts are benign and patients live many years with them without the need of any treatment.
- Multinodular goiter. As the name says, it is a condition that includes an enlargement of the gland as well as the presence of many nodules within the thyroid. The common causes are iodine deficiency or a disorder of the thyroid such as hypo function. It is possible to feel pressure in the neck where the gland is situated and the thyroid can be also manually reached.
- Many researches prove that chronic inflammation of the thyroid is getting more and more common in recent years. It has a genetic predisposition. One of the most common thyroiditis conditions is the Hashimoto’s disease. It usually causes an enlargement of the gland that is associated with a decrease in hormone production (hypothyroidism). The reason for this inflammation is the development of antibodies by the immune system against structures in the thyroid gland. A process similar to the destruction of the pancreas in type 1 diabetes.
- Cancer of the thyroid gland. The chances of a thyroid gland to be malignant are very small, but it is still necessary to inspect it further, especially if there has been thyroid cancer or any other endocrine cancer case in the family of the patient. In addition to this, there are also other risk factors such as being a male, having a history of exposure to radiation, being older than 60 or younger than 30, and more. Most of the thyroid nodules are not painful and are soft in consistency. The ones related to cancer most of the times are the reason for discomfort and pain, as well as being solid in consistency.
These are the most common reasons associated with the development of thyroid nodules. There may be some complications depending on the size and number of the nodules such as having problems breathing or swallowing, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer if nodules are not regularly checked by medical specialists. If you have thyroid nodules then it is highly recommended to regularly check your thyroid hormones and pass examinations of the thyroid each year.