In this article:
It is easy to get confused with all of the different structures in your neck. Indeed, there are many components on this vital highway that sends nerve signals, food, oxygen, and blood between your head and the rest of your body. But, because the thyroid is centrally located on the neck and can be palpated, it is important to know what you feel, especially if you are concerned about thyroid enlargement or nodules. One of the biggest confusions people have is over the cartilage near the thyroid, so let's resolve this common question: is cricoid cartilage the same as thyroid cartilage?
Cartilage is one of the main types of connective tissue found in the human body. It provides structure and support for various body parts, including the nose, ears, spine, joints, bones, and lungs. Cells called chondrocytes create a matrix out of collagen fibers and other proteins that can attract water to give structure and shape to a specific tissue.
There are three different types of cartilage:
- Elastic cartilage - found in the nose, ears, and lungs and is very flexible
- Fibrocartilage - serves as cushioning for some bone and joint formations like the knees and spine
- Hyaline cartilage - lines the joints to provide cushion and prevent friction and is found in the airway.
As you can see above, cartilage serves two prominent roles: to protect bones from wear and tear and to create a more flexible protective structure for vital organs like the lungs and trachea.
It is easy to confuse these two structures because they are very close in proximity, but they are NOT the same thing.
The cricoid cartilage is one of the more well-known areas in the neck, but it is often mistaken for the Adam's apple. The cricoid is a complete ring of cartilage that surrounds the trachea. As it is made with hyaline cartilage, the cricoid's primary role is to protect the airway. However, it also serves as an attachment point for muscles and ligaments that help open and close the airway and plays a role in speech production.
This ring-shaped structure is not a solid, perfect ring shape like the cartilage rings found below, but it has arches on the front or anterior side. In emergencies, health care workers may create an incision in the cricoid cartilage to expand the airway.
Thyroid cartilage is much bigger and acts like a protective shield covering the airway. The thyroid cartilage is the largest cartilage structure in the airway, and like the cricoid, it is made of hyaline cartilage. However, the cricoid is much stronger and thicker than the thyroid cartilage. In addition, the thyroid cartilage is wedge-shaped and is not a solid plate from front to back but is instead fused together.
One of the hallmark features of the thyroid cartilage is the laryngeal prominence, which is also known as the "Adam's apple." The Adam's apple is above the thyroid gland, so this can be a helpful point of orientation for people trying to feel for their thyroid.
Despite its name, the thyroid cartilage has nothing to do with the thyroid gland itself. The thyroid lies far below the thyroid cartilage and wraps around the trachea just below the cricoid. Instead, the thyroid cartilage's role is to protect the vocal cords and help produce voice sounds.
Because the thyroid surrounds the trachea, it makes sense that changes to your thyroid may impact your ability to breathe and speak. One of the most common complications of thyroid disease is a goiter, where the thyroid gland enlarges. If left untreated or if it grows too large, it can certainly impact the function of surrounding structures. However, acute airway compression is relatively uncommon as most goiters only show modest increases in size, but your thyroid gland size does require monitoring. Abnormal growths and nodules may also interfere with your ability to breathe and produce vocal sounds.
It is essential to know your body well, and one of the ways to do that is by performing frequent self-checks on specific areas of your body. For example, many dermatologists recommend that you regularly do skin checks between annual skin exams to watch for abnormal moles or lesions. Likewise, some gynecologists recommend women do self-breast exams to feel for out-of-the-ordinary lumps or bumps.
You can also do a an at-home neck exam where you feel for your thyroid. This practice may be helpful, especially if you have been diagnosed with a thyroid condition or suspect you may have one and are needing care. Follow these steps to conduct a self neck exam:
- Stand in front of a mirror, put some water in your mouth, and tilt your head back.
- Swallow the water with your head tilted back.
- Look for any bulges or unusual protrusions as you swallow. Bear in mind the Adam's apple is located above the thyroid and is a normal part of your tracheal anatomy.
- Next, feel for any abnormal lumps and changes to the tissues in the nape of your neck. Skilled health care providers will know where exactly to palpate the thyroid gland, but if anything is obvious, you may be able to feel it just by lightly palpating the area below your Adam's apple.
If you feel any pain, lumps, or protrusions in this area, contact your doctor immediately for a follow-up evaluation. A complete thyroid panel, which includes TSH, free T4, free T3, and TPO antibodies, helps rule out thyroid problems like hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease. For patients who have only had their TSH checked, this is usually not sufficient to understand your full thyroid function, so consider doing an at-home thyroid test kit for comprehensive testing on your thyroid.