Nontoxic Goiter Clinical Presentation

Updated: Oct 05, 2021
  • Author: Stephanie L Lee, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: George T Griffing, MD  more...
  • Print


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. [4]

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). [5, 4]

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). [5, 4]


Physical Examination

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. [5, 4, 6]

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. [7]  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. [8]


Carefully examine the neck to identify any lymphadenopathy.