In addition to the examination of the thyroid itself, the physical examination should include a search for signs of abnormal thyroid function and the extrathyroidal features of ophthalmopathy and dermopathy (see below). Examination of the neck begins by inspecting the seated patient from the front and side and noting any surgical scars, obvious masses, or distended veins. The thyroid can be palpated with both hands from behind or while facing the patient, using the thumbs to palpate each lobe. It is best to use a combination of these methods, especially when nodules are small. The patient’s neck should be slightly flexed to relax the neck muscles. After locating the cricoid cartilage, the isthmus, which is attached to the lower one-third of the thyroid lobes, can be identified and then followed laterally to locate either lobe (normally, the right lobe is slightly larger than the left). By asking the patient to swallow sips of water, thyroid consistency can be better appreciated as the gland moves beneath the examiner’s fingers.
Features to be noted include thyroid size, consistency, nodularity, and any tenderness or fixation. An estimate of thyroid size (normally 12–20 g) should be made, and a drawing is often the best way to record findings. However, ultrasound is the method of choice when it is important to determine thyroid size accurately. The size, location, and consistency of any nodules should also be defined. A bruit or thrill over the gland, located over the insertion of the superior and inferior thyroid arteries (supero- or inferolaterally), indicates increased vascularity, as occurs in hyperthyroidism. If the lower borders of the thyroid lobes are not clearly felt, a goiter may be retrosternal. Large retrosternal goiters can cause venous distention over the neck and difficulty breathing, especially when the arms are raised (Pemberton’s sign). With any central mass above the thyroid, the tongue should be extended, as thyroglossal cysts then move upward. The thyroid examination is not complete without assessment for lymphadenopathy in the supraclavicular and cervical regions of the neck.
Radioiodine uptake and thyroid scanning
The thyroid gland selectively transports radioisotopes of iodine (123I, 125I, 131I) and 99mTc pertechnetate, allowing thyroid imaging and quantitation of radioactive tracer fractional uptake.
Nuclear imaging of Graves’ disease is characterized by an enlarged gland and increased tracer uptake that is distributed homogeneously. Toxic adenomas appear as focal areas of increased uptake, with suppressed tracer uptake in the remainder of the gland. In toxic MNG, the gland is enlarged—often with distorted architecture—and there are multiple areas of relatively increased (functioning nodules) or decreased tracer uptake (suppressed thyroid parenchyma or nonfunctioning nodules). Subacute, viral, and postpartum thyroiditis are associated with very low uptake because of follicular cell damage and TSH suppression. Thyrotoxicosis factitia is also associated with low uptake. In addition, if there is excessive circulating exogenous iodine (e.g., ...