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The thyroid gland produces two related hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) (Fig. 405-1). Acting through thyroid hormone receptors α and β, these hormones play a critical role in cell differentiation during development and help maintain thermogenic and metabolic homeostasis in the adult. Autoimmune disorders of the thyroid gland can stimulate overproduction of thyroid hormones (thyrotoxicosis) or cause glandular destruction and hormone deficiency (hypothyroidism). In addition, benign nodules and various forms of thyroid cancer are relatively common and amenable to detection by physical examination.

FIGURE 405-1

Structures of thyroid hormones. Thyroxine (T4) contains four iodine atoms. Deiodination leads to production of the potent hormone triiodothyronine (T3) or the inactive hormone reverse T3.


The thyroid (Greek thyreos, shield, plus eidos, form) consists of two lobes connected by an isthmus. It is located anterior to the trachea between the cricoid cartilage and the suprasternal notch. The normal thyroid is 12–20 g in size, highly vascular, and soft in consistency. Four parathyroid glands, which produce parathyroid hormone (Chap. 424), are located posterior to each pole of the thyroid. The recurrent laryngeal nerves traverse the lateral borders of the thyroid gland and must be identified during thyroid surgery to avoid injury and vocal cord paralysis.

The thyroid gland develops from the floor of the primitive pharynx during the third week of gestation. The developing gland migrates along the thyroglossal duct to reach its final location in the neck. This feature accounts for the rare ectopic location of thyroid tissue at the base of the tongue (lingual thyroid) as well as the occurrence of thyroglossal duct cysts along this developmental tract. Thyroid hormone synthesis normally begins at about 11 weeks’ gestation.

Neural crest derivatives from the ultimobranchial body give rise to thyroid medullary C cells that produce calcitonin, a calcium-lowering hormone. The C cells are interspersed throughout the thyroid gland, although their density is greatest in the juncture of the upper one-third and lower two-thirds of the gland. Calcitonin plays a minimal role in calcium homeostasis in humans but the C-cells are important because of their involvement in medullary thyroid cancer.

TABLE 405-1Genetic Causes of Congenital Hypothyroidism

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