What is a thyroid ultrasound?

An ultrasound is a painless procedure that uses sound waves to generate images of the inside of your body. Your doctor will often use an ultrasound to create images of a fetus during pregnancy.

A thyroid ultrasound is used to examine the thyroid for abnormalities, including:

  • cysts
  • nodules
  • tumors

Uses for a thyroid ultrasound

A thyroid ultrasound may be ordered if a thyroid function test is abnormal or if you doctor feels a growth on your thyroid while examining your neck. An ultrasound can also check an underactive or overactive thyroid gland.

You may receive a thyroid ultrasound as part of an overall physical exam. Ultrasounds can provide high-resolution images of your organs that can help your doctor better understand your general health. Your doctor may also order an ultrasound if they notice any abnormal swelling, pain, or infections so that they can uncover any underlying conditions that might be causing these symptoms.

Ultrasounds may also be used if your doctor needs to take a biopsy of your thyroid or surrounding tissues to test for any existing conditions.

How to prepare for an ultrasound

Your ultrasound will probably be performed in a hospital. A growing number of outpatient facilities can also perform ultrasounds.

Before the test, remove necklaces and other accessories that can block your throat. When you arrive, you’ll be asked to remove your shirt and lie on your back.

Your doctor may suggest injecting contrast agents into your bloodstream to improve the quality of the ultrasound images. This is usually done with a quick injection using a needle filled with materials such as Lumason or Levovist, which are made of gas filled with tiny bubbles.

How it’s done

The ultrasound technician places a pillow or a pad under the back of your neck to tilt your head back and to expose your throat. You may be uncomfortable in this position, but it’s not usually painful. In some cases, you may be able to sit upright during the ultrasound.

The technician will then rub gel onto your throat, which helps the ultrasound probe, or transducer, glide over your skin. The gel may feel a little cold when it is applied, but contact with your skin warms it.

The technician will run the transducer back and forth over the area where your thyroid is located. This should not be painful. Communicate with your technician if you experience any discomfort.

Images will be visible on a screen, and are used to make sure that the radiologist has a clear picture of your thyroid to evaluate. Technicians are not allowed to diagnose or to explain ultrasound results, so don’t ask them to do so.

Your doctor and a radiologist will examine the images. You’ll be called with the results in a few days.

A thyroid ultrasound is not associated with any risks. You’ll be able to resume your normal activities as soon as it’s over.

How can a thyroid ultrasound help with diagnosis?

An ultrasound can give your doctor a lot of valuable information, such as:

  • if a growth is fluid-filled or solid
  • the number of growths
  • where the growths are located
  • whether a growth has distinct boundaries
  • blood flow to the growth

Ultrasounds can also detect a goiter, a swelling of the thyroid gland.

Understanding thyroid ultrasound results

Your doctor usually analyzes the results before consulting with you about possible follow-up tests or conditions that may be indicated by the ultrasound. In some cases, your ultrasound may show images of nodules that may or may not be cancerous or contain microcalcifications, which is often associated with cancer. But according to one study, cancer was found in only 1 of every 111 ultrasound tests, and over half of the people whose results showed thyroid nodules did not have cancer. Small nodules are most likely not cancerous.

How much does a thyroid ultrasound cost?

Your ultrasound cost depends on your healthcare provider. Some providers may not charge you anything for the procedure. Other providers may charge you from $100 to $1000 as well as an additional co-pay for an office visit.

The type of ultrasound you get may affect the cost as well. Newer ultrasound technologies, such as three-dimension (3D) ultrasounds or Doppler ultrasounds, may cost more because of the higher level of detail that these ultrasounds can provide.

Follow-up after a thyroid ultrasound

Follow-up depends on ultrasound results. Your doctor may order a biopsy of a suspicious lump. A fine needle aspiration may also be used for further diagnosis. During this procedure, your doctor inserts a long, thin needle into a cyst on your thyroid to draw up fluid to test for cancer.

You may not need any additional care if the ultrasound shows no abnormalities. If your doctor performs thyroid ultrasounds as part of a physical exam, you’ll likely need to prepare for the procedure again when you return for the exam. Also, if you have a family history of thyroid abnormalities or related conditions, your doctor may ask you to have thyroid ultrasounds more frequently in order to detect any symptoms of a thyroid-related condition early on.

If your ultrasound does reveal abnormalities, your doctor may order follow-up tests to narrow down the conditions that may be causing these abnormalities. In these cases, you may need another ultrasound or a different kind of ultrasound to more clearly examine your thyroid. If you have a cyst, nodule, or tumor, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove it or other treatment for any condition or cancer present.

Ultrasounds are quick, painless, procedures, and can help you detect conditions or early stages of cancers. Talk to your doctor if you believe you have a family history of thyroid issues or are concerned about a possible thyroid condition in order to initiate preventive ultrasound care.