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 uses. 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 a host of 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
- Chronic fatigue
When the thyroid gland produces too little T3 or T4, it’s known as hypothyroidism, and it can trigger the following symptoms:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Muscle aches
- Muscle weakness
- High cholesterol
- Painful, stiff, or swollen joints
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- 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 is complaining of any detailed symptoms. The benefit of performing a thyroid ultrasound is twofold. Firstly, and perhaps most important, 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 have the potential of turning 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 gets underway, the clinician applies a thin layer of gel to the front of your throat, which allows 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 it 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.