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Original Investigation
November 24, 2021

Diagnostic Test Accuracy of Ultrasonography vs Computed Tomography for Papillary Thyroid Cancer Cervical Lymph Node Metastasis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Radiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  • 2Department of Radiology, McMaster University, St Joseph’s Healthcare, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  • 3DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  • 4Division of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, Department of Surgery, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Published online November 24, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2021.3387
Key Points

Question  What is the most effective preoperative imaging to detect regional metastasis in papillary thyroid cancer?

Findings  In this systematic review and meta-analysis of 31 942 individuals, no difference between ultrasonography (US) and computed tomography (CT) was found for detection of lateral compartment cervical node metastasis in individuals with papillary thyroid cancer. For detection of central compartment metastasis, CT was more sensitive, while US was more specific.

Meaning  Computed tomography in assessment of cervical lymph node metastasis for papillary thyroid cancer may be warranted, possibly as an adjunct to US; further study is necessary to refine the role of CT imaging in this clinical scenario.


Importance  The use of ultrasonography (US) vs cross-sectional imaging for preoperative evaluation of papillary thyroid cancer is debated.

Objective  To compare thyroid US and computed tomography (CT) in the preoperative evaluation of papillary thyroid cancer for cervical lymph node metastasis (CLNM), as well as extrathyroidal disease extension.

Data Sources  MEDLINE and Embase were searched from January 1, 2000, to July 18, 2020.

Study Selection  Studies reporting on the diagnostic accuracy of US and/or CT in individuals with treatment-naive papillary thyroid cancer for CLNM and/or extrathyroidal disease extension were included. The reference standard was defined as histopathology/cytology or imaging follow-up. Independent title and abstract review (2515 studies) followed by full-text review (145 studies) was completed by multiple investigators.

Data Extraction and Synthesis  PRISMA guidelines were followed. Methodologic and diagnostic accuracy data were abstracted independently by multiple investigators. Risk of bias assessment was conducted using the Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies (QUADAS-2) tool independently and in duplicate. Bivariate random-effects model meta-analysis and multivariable meta-regression modeling was used.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Diagnostic test accuracy of US and CT of the neck for lateral and central compartment CLNM, as well as for extrathyroidal disease extension, determined prior to study commencement.

Results  A total of 47 studies encompassing 31 942 observations for thyroid cancer (12 771 with CLNM; 1747 with extrathyroidal thyroid extension) were included; 21 and 26 studies were at low and high risk for bias, respectively. Based on comparative design studies, US and CT demonstrated no significant difference in sensitivity (73% [95% CI, 64%-80%] and 77% [95% CI, 67%-85%], respectively; P = .11) or specificity (89% [95% CI, 80%-94%] and 88% [95% CI, 79%-94%], respectively; P = .79) for lateral compartment CLNM. For central compartment metastasis, sensitivity was higher in CT (39% [95% CI, 27%-52%]) vs US (28% [95% CI, 21%-36%]; P = .004), while specificity was higher in US (95% [95% CI, 92%-98%]) vs CT (87% [95% CI, 77%-93%]; P < .001). Ultrasonography demonstrated a sensitivity of 91% (95% CI, 81%-96%) and specificity of 47% (95% CI, 35%-60%) for extrathyroidal extension.

Conclusions and Relevance  The findings of this systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that further study is warranted of the role of CT for papillary thyroid cancer staging, possibly as an adjunct to US.

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