THE THYROID GLAND
The thyroid gland is the biggest gland in
the neck. It is situated in the anterior (front) neck and lies
just beneath the skin and muscle layers. The thyroid gland takes
the shape of a butterfly with the two wings being represented by
the left and right thyroid lobes which wrap around the trachea
(windpipe). The sole function of the thyroid is to make thyroid
hormone. This hormone has an effect on nearly all tissues of the
body where it increases cellular activity. The function of the
thyroid therefore is to regulate the body's metabolism.
Common Thyroid Problems
The thyroid gland is prone to several very distinct problems,
some of which are extremely common. These problems can be broken
down into  those concerning the production of hormone (too
much, or too little),  those due to increased growth of the
thyroid causing compression of important neck structures or
simply appearing as a mass (or lump) in the neck,  the
formation of nodules or lumps within the thyroid which are
worrisome for the presence of thyroid cancer, and  those
which are cancerous.
Goiters ~ A thyroid goiter
is a dramatic enlargement of the thyroid gland. Goiters are
often removed because of cosmetic reasons or, more commonly,
because they compress other vital structures of the neck
including the trachea and the esophagus making breathing and
swallowing difficult. Sometimes goiters will actually grow into
the chest where they can cause trouble as well.
~ Thyroid cancer is a fairly common malignancy, however, the
vast majority have excellent long term survival.
Solitary Thyroid Nodules ~
There are several characteristics of solitary nodules of the
thyroid which make them suspicious for malignancy. Although as
many as 50% of the population will have a nodule somewhere in
their thyroid, the overwhelming majority of these are benign.
Occasionally, thyroid nodules can take on characteristics of
malignancy and require either a needle biopsy or surgical
~ Hyperthyroidism means too much thyroid hormone. Current
methods used for treating a hyperthyroid patient are radioactive
iodine, anti-thyroid drugs, or surgery. Each method has
advantages and disadvantages and is selected for individual
patients. Many times the situation will suggest that all three
methods are appropriate, while other circumstances will dictate
a single best therapeutic option. Surgery is the least common
treatment selected for hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism means too little thyroid hormone and is a common
problem. In fact, hypothyroidism is often present for a number
of years before it is recognized and treated. Hypothyroidism can
even be associated with pregnancy. Treatment for all types of
hypothyroidism is usually straightforward.
Thyroiditis ~ Thyroiditis is
an inflammatory process within the thyroid gland. Thyroiditis
can present with a number of symptoms such as fever and pain,
but it can also present as subtle findings of hypo or hyper-thyroidism.
Investigations into thyroid problems
usually involve blood tests and special thyroid scans. The
latter include ultrasound scans, radioisotope scans include
radioactive iodine or other radionuclides, and, sometimes, CT
scan or MRI scans.