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Thyroid Ultrasound: What You Should Know

March 9, 2022

The thyroid gland is one of many glands that make up the endocrine system. When functioning properly, the thyroid gland releases two hormones that regulate how much energy the cells in our body use. These hormones are called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroxine and triiodothyronine also help the thyroid gland perform physiological functions that sustain human life.

Some of the more notable of these include heart rate, body temperature, and metabolism. When the thyroid gland isn’t functioning correctly —  releasing too much or too little T3 or T4 — its ability to perform such physiological functions will invariably become compromised. It won’t take long before symptoms start to present themselves when this happens. A thyroid ultrasound can be beneficial in detecting thyroid disease or cancer early. 

Symptoms of Thyroid Disease

Thyroid disease is an umbrella term for various medical conditions that preclude the thyroid gland from producing the amount of T3 and T4 that the body needs. When the thyroid gland produces too much of either of these hormones, it’s known as hyperthyroidism. Some of the typical symptoms of hyperthyroidism include the following:

  • A rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • The development of a goiter
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic fatigue

When the thyroid gland produces too little T3 or T4, it’s known as hypothyroidism, and it can trigger the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscle weakness
  • High cholesterol
  • Painful, stiff, or swollen joints
  • Thinning hair
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • The development of a goiter

The Normal Size of the Thyroid Gland: Why Your Doctor Might Order a Thyroid Ultrasound

Generally speaking, after going over a patient’s medical history and performing a physical exam, a physician might order a thyroid ultrasound if that patient complains of any detailed symptoms. The benefit of performing a thyroid ultrasound is twofold. Firstly, perhaps most importantly, they help either rule out or confirm thyroid cancer. Second, they can reveal the size of the thyroid gland. For reference, the normal size of the thyroid gland, which sits right around the middle of the throat, is roughly two inches long. 

When the thyroid exceeds two inches, it will bulge away from the neck or throat, officially characterizing as a goiter. This is important since goiters can signify hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, or thyroid cancer. Even if an ultrasound doesn’t identify anything suggesting problems with the thyroid itself, the digital thyroid image physicians see on a screen can provide valuable patient information, including signs of genetic diseases that can turn into cancer in the future.

Digital Thyroid Images: Who Is a Good Candidate for Them?

According to a study published by the Cleveland Clinic, thyroid disease is far more common among women than men. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with thyroid disease than their male counterparts. This doesn’t necessarily mean that men and children are in the clear. Anyone meeting the following criteria is at risk of developing conditions that can negatively affect their thyroid health:

  • A personal or family history of thyroid disease
  • A previous diagnosis of diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, or another autoimmune disease
  • Taking medication that contains a high concentration of iodine
  • Being age 60 or over
  • Previous radiation treatments to combat any form of cancer

Anyone meeting the above criteria should have digital thyroid images taken via an ultrasound machine. It might even be a good idea to undergo such an exam as part of a comprehensive annual health screening.

What to Expect During an Enlarged Thyroid Ultrasound Exam

An enlarged thyroid ultrasound exam can be done by a radiologist, endocrinologist, or sonographer. These painless exams occur while you’re in a reclined or seated position. Before the exam, the clinician applies a thin layer of gel to the front of your throat, allowing the handheld probe connected to the ultrasound machine to slide around more efficiently.  

From there, the clinician thoroughly examines the neck and throat with their handheld device, looking for signs of an enlarged thyroid gland. If the clinician discovers a bump on the thyroid, they will measure its overall size before pinpointing its precise location on the neck or throat.   The information gathered by the clinician will enable them to determine if the bump on the thyroid is solid or if it contains blood or other fluids, which partly determines whether it’s benign or malignant.

Taking Preventative Action 

A thyroid ultrasound typically takes ten minutes to complete and can provide a world of information relative to patient health. Bearing that in mind, if you meet the criteria for thyroid disease or you’re experiencing any of the symptoms detailed in this article, you should speak with your doctor about getting an ultrasound.

Taking preventive measures for cancer is always a good idea. At Nashville Oncology, we treat a wide range of conditions and personalize treatment plans to meet the individual needs of our patients and their families. Contact us to learn more or schedule an appointment.