Exposing the Thyroid to Radiation: A Review of Its Current Extent, Risks, and Implications
Schneider, Arthur B.
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Radiation exposure of the thyroid at a young age is a recognized risk factor for the development of differentiated thyroid cancer lasting for four decades and probably for a lifetime after exposure. Medical radiation exposure, however, occurs frequently, including among the pediatric population, which is especially sensitive to the effects of radiation. In the past, the treatment of benign medical conditions with external radiation represented the most significant thyroid radiation exposures. Today, diagnostic medical radiation represents the largest source of man-made radiation exposure. Radiation exposure related to the use of computerized tomography is rising exponentially, particularly in the pediatric population. There is direct epidemiological evidence of a small but significant increased risk of cancer at radiation doses equivalent to computerized tomography doses used today. Paralleling the increasing use of medical radiation is an increase in the incidence of papillary thyroid cancer. At present, it is unclear how much of this increase is related to increased detection of subclinical disease from the increased utilization of ultrasonography and fine-needle aspiration, how much is due to a true increase in thyroid cancer, and how much, if any, can be ascribed to medical radiation exposure. Fortunately, the amount of radiation exposure from medical sources can be reduced. In this article we review the sources of thyroid radiation exposure, radiation risks to the thyroid gland, strategies for reducing radiation exposure to the thyroid, and ways that endocrinologists can participate in this effort. Finally, we provide some suggestions for future research directions. (Endocrine Reviews 31: 756–773, 2010)