Rheumatoid nodules are white, fibrous submucosal nodules located on the vocal cords. They are sometimes described as “bamboo nodes,” because of the medial to lateral orientation of the submucosal lesion. Rheumatoid nodules in other areas of the body (elbows, knuckles, etc.) are almost always seen in the context of rheumatoid arthritis. In the larynx, they seem to occur with other auto-immune disorders, and sometimes as the first manifestation of an autoimmune disorder, before the patient has any other symptoms besides hoarseness.
The other entity in the differential diagnosis would be an epidermoid cyst, though distinguishing between the two is usually fairly simple on visual criteria alone. The key features for epidermoid cysts is that they are spherical rather than being oriented in a medial-to-lateral direction. If an epidermoid cyst begins to leak its contents, its shape can also become oval or oblong, but the axis of the submucosal white mass is anterior to posterior. Other distinguishing features of rheumatoid nodules are that they are routinely bilateral and sometimes even multiple as seen in some of the photo series below.
Photos of rheumatoid nodules:
Woman with hoarseness (1 of 4)
Woman in middle age with very noticeable hoarseness. Standard light view not highly revealing.
White submucosal markings (2 of 4)
At very high pitch, one can see edge irregularity especially on the left side (right of photo). Note in addition faint white submucosal markings.
Submucosal lesions (3 of 4)
Under strobe light at high pitch, the medial-to-lateral white submucosal lesion on the left vocal cord (right of photo) is indicated by dotted lines. Additional mottled areas are not marked.
Remission from Crohn's (4 of 4)
At this high pitch, there is an independent vibrating segment involving the area of the brackets. A scratchy, diplophonic voice quality is heard at this pitch. Based upon these findings and additional questions, the patient revealed that she considers herself to be in remission from Crohn's Disease, after having been on Remicade and prednisone a year earlier.
Standard light, submucosal lesions seen (1 of 4)
Young middle-aged woman with chronic severe hoarseness. In abducted (breathing) position under standard light, one can see irregular margins but more importantly, whitish submucosal lesions with the classic appearance of rheumatoid nodules.
Narrow band light, accentuated capillaries (2 of 4)
Under narrow band light, the overlying capillaries are accentuated, and submucosal masses remain obvious.
Strobe light, nodules (3 of 4)
During open (breathing) position, but under strobe light, another view of these classic, multiple, medial-to-lateral “bamboo” nodules.
Submucosal mass (1 of 4)
This young woman has abandoned her strong avocational interest in singing years earlier due to chronic and apparently unresolvable hoarseness. Speaking voice can pass for normal. Consistent with submucosal pathology, her swelling checks become abruptly (rather than gradually) impaired as she sings up the scale. Even in this breathing position, the left vocal cord (right of photo) appears to have a whitish submucosal mass.
Open phase (2 of 4)
At F#4 (370 Hz) under strobe light, open phase of vibration. The lesion remains indistinct.
Much higher pitch (4 of 4)
At the much higher pitch of E5 (659 Hz), the mucosa is stretched and thinned so that the lesion is much more visible (right of photo). This is likely a rheumatoid nodule. The only other oval submucosal white lesion is an open epidermoid cyst, but the axis of the oval is always anterior-posterior rather than medial-lateral.