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.
What is a Thyroid Disorder?
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.
Patients with a family history of thyroid cancer or who had radiation therapy to the head or neck as children for acne, adenoids, or other reasons are more prone to develop thyroid malignancy.
If you develop significant swelling in your neck or difficulty breathing or swallowing, you should call your surgeon or be seen in the emergency room.
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