Introduction: Goitre presenting with acute, life-threatening airway compromise is an uncommon indication for thyroid surgery. The management of this critical condition is controversial.
Aims: To investigate the incidence of life-threatening airway compromise in patients with benign goitre, to investigate the predisposing factors, and to outline an optimal management policy for such critical cases.
Methods: Retrospective review of the medical records of patients presenting with life-threatening, acute airway compromise secondary to benign thyroid disease, treated by the senior author (CT) between July 1994 and July 2005.
Results: Of a total of 505 thyroid surgery procedures over the 11-year period, five patients with benign thyroid disease had presented with life-threatening, acute airway compromise. Three of the five patients had been thyrotoxic and two of these had received an iodine load prior to airway compromise. Immediate endotracheal intubation for airway control followed by admission to the intensive care unit had been the presentation in two patients. An incidental diagnosis of tracheal compression had been made from the computed tomography (CT) scan in two patients who had non-resolved obstructive airway disease. Emergency thyroidectomy had been performed in all five patients. Significant tracheomalacia had been noted in four patients. Following thyroidectomy, two patients had required tracheostomy and one had required tracheal stenting.
Conclusion: Chronic obstructive airways disease, substernal extension and long-standing goitre are considered as risk factors for developing acute, life-threatening airway compromise in the presence of benign thyroid disease. A recent iodine load may lead to airway compromise in thyrotoxic patients. A CT scan is indicated in cases of unresponsive chronic obstructive airways disease to rule out substernal extension of non-palpable goitres. Life-threatening airway compromise secondary to benign goitres is best treated by endotracheal intubation if conservative measures fail, followed by emergency thyroidectomy. Following surgery, close observation is mandatory to exclude airway compromise due to tracheomalacia and laryngeal oedema.