Thyroid Nodule Size at Ultrasound as a Predictor of Malignancy and Final Pathologic Size

Allison Cavallo, Daniel Johnson, Michael G. White, Saaduddin Siddiqui, Tatjana Antic, Melvy Mathew, Raymon H. Grogan, Peter Angelos, Edwin L. Kaplan, Nicole A. Cipriani*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Background: Thyroid-related mortality has remained constant despite the increasing incidence of thyroid carcinoma. Most thyroid nodules are benign; therefore, ultrasound and fine needle aspiration (FNA) are integral in cancer screening. We hypothesize that increased nodule size at ultrasound does not predict malignancy and correlation between nodule size at ultrasound and pathologic exam is good. Methods: Resected thyroids with preoperative ultrasounds were identified. Nodule size at ultrasound, FNA diagnosis by Bethesda category, size at pathologic examination, and final histologic diagnosis were recorded. Nodule characteristics at ultrasound and FNA diagnoses were correlated with gross characteristics and histologic diagnoses. Nodules for which correlation could not be established were excluded. Results: Of 1003 nodules from 659 patients, 26% were malignant. Nodules <2 cm had the highest malignancy rate (∼30%). Risk was similar (∼20%) for nodules ≥2 cm. Of the 548 subject to FNA, 38% were malignant. Decreasing malignancy rates were observed with increasing size (57% for nodules <1 cm to 20% for nodules >6 cm). At ultrasound size cutoffs of 2, 3, 4, and 5 cm, smaller nodules had higher malignancy rates than larger nodules. Of the 455 not subject to FNA, 11% were malignant. Ultrasound size alone is a poor predictor of malignancy, but a relatively good predictor of final pathologic size (R2 = 0.748), with less correlation at larger sizes. In nodules subject to FNA, false negative diagnoses were highest (6-8%) in nodules 3-6 cm, mostly due to encapsulated follicular variant of papillary carcinoma. Conclusions: Thyroid nodule size is inversely related to malignancy risk, as larger nodules have lower malignancy rates. However, the relationship of size to malignancy varies by FNA status. All nodules (regardless of FNA status) demonstrate a risk trough at ≥2 cm. Nodules subject to FNA show step-wise decline in malignancy rates by size, demonstrating that size alone should not be considered as an independent risk factor. Size at ultrasound shows relatively good correlation with final pathologic size. False negative rates are low in this series. Lesions with the appropriate constellation of clinical and radiographic findings should undergo FNA regardless of size. Both size and FNA diagnosis should influence the clinical decision-making process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)641-650
Number of pages10
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017


  • malignancy
  • pathologic size
  • thyroid nodules
  • ultrasound size

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology


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