Which clinical history findings are characteristic of thyroid cancer?

Updated: May 14, 2020
  • Author: Pramod K Sharma, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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Thyroid carcinoma most commonly manifests as a painless, palpable, solitary thyroid nodule. Patients or physicians discover most of these nodules during routine palpation of the neck. Palpable thyroid nodules are present in approximately 4-7% of the general population, and most represent benign disease. High-resolution ultrasonography reportedly depicts thyroid nodules in 19-67% of randomly selected individuals. An estimated 5-10% of solitary thyroid nodules are malignant. Palpable and nonpalpable nodules of similar size have the same risk of malignancy.

The patient's age at presentation is important because solitary nodules are most likely to be malignant in patients older than 60 years and in patients younger than 30 years. In addition, thyroid nodules are associated with an increased rate of malignancy in male individuals. Growth of a nodule may suggest malignancy. Rapid growth is an ominous sign.

Malignant thyroid nodules are usually painless. Sudden onset of pain is more strongly associated with benign disease, such as hemorrhage into a benign cyst or subacute viral thyroiditis, than with malignancy.

Hoarseness suggests involvement of the recurrent laryngeal nerve and vocal fold paralysis. Dysphagia may be a sign of impingement of the digestive tract. Heat intolerance and palpitations suggest autonomously functioning nodules.

Medullary carcinoma can occur as part of multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) 2A or 2B syndrome, as well as familial MTC (FMTC) syndrome. Patients with a family history of thyroid cancer should be evaluated with vigilance.

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