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Nontoxic Goiter Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Stephanie L Lee, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: George T Griffing, MD  more...
Updated: Feb 04, 2013


The thyroid gland usually grows outward because of its location anterior to the trachea (see the image below). Occasionally, the thyroid wraps around and compresses the trachea and/or esophagus or extends inferiorly into the anterior mediastinum.

Multinodular goiter. On visual inspection of the n Multinodular goiter. On visual inspection of the neck (image on left), this patient appears to have a goiter. The computed tomography scan (image on right) shows the asymmetrical goiter, measuring 9.3 x 7.4 cm, with tracheal deviation, although no tracheal obstruction is present.

Growth pattern

Determining whether the goiter has been present for many years and whether a change has occurred in the recent past is important.

Recent or accelerated growth of a discrete nodule or thyroid lobe should raise the suspicion of malignancy.

Goiters associated with unilateral adenopathy should raise the suspicion of malignancy.[1]

Goiters rarely are painful or grow quickly unless recent hemorrhage into a nodule has occurred.

Obstructive symptoms (see the image below)

Intrathoracic goiter causing obstruction. This pat Intrathoracic goiter causing obstruction. This patient has a visible goiter on physical examination. In addition, he has distension of his left external jugular vein, facial erythema (when compared with his shoulder), and cutaneous varicosities of venous blood draining from his head into his chest because of jugular obstruction from his goiter.

Tracheal compression is generally asymptomatic until critical narrowing has occurred.

Patients develop a dry cough, dyspnea, and stridor, especially with exertion. In patients with intrathoracic goiter, the dyspnea and stridor may be nocturnal or positional (ie, occurring when the patient's arms are raised) when the thoracic outlet is narrowed.

Hemorrhage into a nodule or cyst or development of bronchitis may acutely worsen the respiratory symptoms in a patient with tracheal narrowing.

The esophagus is more posterior in the neck, and a goiter occasionally extends posteriorly and causes solid food and pill dysphagia.

Compression of the recurrent laryngeal nerve by a goiter or invasion by a thyroid malignancy results in vocal cord dysfunction and may cause hoarseness. The superior laryngeal nerve controls the pitch of the voice. An expanding goiter may cause a change in the character of the voice, especially in individuals who use their voice extensively (eg, in certain occupations).

Compression of the venous outflow through the thoracic inlet by a mediastinal goiter results in facial plethora and dilated neck and upper thoracic veins.

Iodine intake

Obtain a careful diet history for iodine deficiency, iodine excess from medications (eg, amiodarone), health food store supplements, or seaweed.

History of radiation

Record any history of head and neck radiation exposure, especially during childhood, which significantly increases the risk of benign and malignant nodular thyroid disease and thyroid dysfunction (hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism).[2, 1]

Family history

Family history is very important in the evaluation of the patient with goiter. Investigate inherited forms of dyshormonogenesis in the pediatric patient, as well as familial papillary carcinoma of the thyroid and familial forms of medullary thyroid cancer (multiple endocrine neoplasia and familial medullary carcinoma of the thyroid).[2, 1]



Pertinent physical findings are limited to the evaluation of the shape, asymmetry, size, and consistency of nontoxic goiters; ultrasonographic characteristics of individual nodules within the goiter; lymphadenopathy; and assessment of thyroid function.[2, 1]

The thyroid evaluation starts with inspection of the neck for thyroid enlargement. Often, the thyroid enlargement can be detected only when the patient swallows.

The thyroid isthmus is usually located at or just below the level of the cricoid cartilage of the trachea. The lobes of the thyroid extend laterally and, if enlarged, may extend posterior to the sternocleidomastoid muscles. Up to 80% of thyroid glands may have a pyramidal lobe extending superiorly from the isthmus.

Assess the gland for overall size; in the United States, the normal weight is 15-20 grams.

Assess the thyroid for asymmetry and determine whether a dominant nodule is present in an overall nodular goiter or whether a solitary nodule is present in an otherwise normal gland. Evaluate dominant nodules that are bigger than 1-1.5 cm or a solitary nodule of the same size by a thin-needle aspiration biopsy.[3] Diffuse or nodular goiters without a dominant nodule do not require a biopsy for evaluation.


Examine patients with dyspnea and cough, especially with exertion, for tracheal obstruction. Note any tracheal deviation from midline.

The patient's voice is assessed for hoarseness.

Venous outflow obstruction of the head and neck can be elicited by the Pemberton maneuver by raising the patient’s arms above the head until they touch the sides of the head for 1 minute. A positive finding occurs with facial plethora or engorgement of the neck veins.

Physical assessment of thyroid dysfunction

Examine patients for signs of thyroid dysfunction.

Hypothyroidism is indicated by a sallow complexion, dysarthric speech, mental slowing, weight gain without change in appetite, cold intolerance, constipation, hypersomnia, and delayed relaxation of deep tendon reflexes.

Hyperthyroidism is indicated by tachycardia, atrial arrhythmia (eg, atrial fibrillation), diaphoresis, weight loss without change in appetite, heat intolerance, hyperdefecation, palmar erythema, lid lag, tremor, and brisk reflexes.


Carefully examine the neck to identify any lymphadenopathy.



The most common worldwide cause of endemic nontoxic goiter is iodine deficiency. However, in patients with sporadic goiter, the cause is usually unknown. Nontoxic goiters have many etiologies, including the following:

  • Iodine deficiency - Goiter formation occurs with moderately deficient iodine intake of less than 50 mcg/d. Severe iodine deficiency associated with intake of less than 25 mcg/d is associated with hypothyroidism and cretinism.
  • Iodine excess - Goiter formation due to iodine excess is rare and usually occurs in the setting of preexisting autoimmune thyroid disease.
  • Goitrogens
    • Drugs - Propylthiouracil, lithium, phenylbutazone, aminoglutethimide, iodine-containing expectorants
    • Environmental agents - Phenolic and phthalate ester derivatives and resorcinol found downstream of coal and shale mines
    • Foods - Vegetables of the genus Brassica (eg, cabbage, turnips, brussels sprouts, rutabagas), seaweed, millet, cassava, and goitrin in grass and weeds
  • Dyshormonogenesis - A defect in the thyroid hormone biosynthetic pathway is inherited.
  • Childhood head and neck radiation - Radiation exposure during childhood results in benign and malignant nodules.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Stephanie L Lee, MD, PhD Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine; Director of Thyroid Health Center, Section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition, Boston Medical Center; Fellow, Association of Clinical Endocrinology

Stephanie L Lee, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Endocrinology, American Thyroid Association, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Sonia Ananthakrishnan, MD Assistant Professor of Medicine, Section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition, Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Kent Wehmeier, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, St Louis University School of Medicine

Kent Wehmeier, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Hypertension, Endocrine Society, International Society for Clinical Densitometry

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

George T Griffing, MD Professor Emeritus of Medicine, St Louis University School of Medicine

George T Griffing, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, International Society for Clinical Densitometry, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, American College of Medical Practice Executives, American Association for Physician Leadership, American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, American Federation for Medical Research, American Heart Association, Central Society for Clinical and Translational Research, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Steven R Gambert, MD Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Director of Geriatric Medicine, University of Maryland Medical Center and R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center

Steven R Gambert, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Association for Physician Leadership, American College of Physicians, American Geriatrics Society, Endocrine Society, Gerontological Society of America, Association of Professors of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Intrathoracic goiter causing obstruction. This patient has a visible goiter on physical examination. In addition, he has distension of his left external jugular vein, facial erythema (when compared with his shoulder), and cutaneous varicosities of venous blood draining from his head into his chest because of jugular obstruction from his goiter.
Technetium-99m (99mTc) thyroid scan of a large, nontoxic multinodular goiter. Multiple cold and hot nodules are observed in the enlarged thyroid gland. The white arrow indicates sternal notch marker.
Areas of autonomy with excess thyroid hormone secretion in a large nodular goiter. This technetium-99m (99mTc) thyroid scan shows hot and cold nodules in a multinodular goiter. Although the patient's thyroid-stimulating hormone level had become progressively suppressed, it was within the reference range, at 0.4 mU/mL (reference range 0.35-5.5 mU/mL).
Nontoxic goiter of the thyroid gland with tracheal compression. An axial, noncontrast computed tomography scan through the thyroid shows significant tracheal compression.
Relief of tracheal compression after subtotal thyroidectomy of large, obstructive, nontoxic multinodular goiter. (A) Laryngoscopy demonstrating critical tracheal narrowing before thyroidectomy; (B) laryngoscopy showing widened patent trachea after thyroidectomy.
Multinodular goiter. On visual inspection of the neck (image on left), this patient appears to have a goiter. The computed tomography scan (image on right) shows the asymmetrical goiter, measuring 9.3 x 7.4 cm, with tracheal deviation, although no tracheal obstruction is present.
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