What You Should Know About the Thyroid
- Posted on: Jan 15 2020
At some point, you may have heard the phrases underactive thyroid, overactive thyroid, Hypothyroidism, Hyperthyroidism, etc… and wondered what they meant. January is Thyroid Awareness Month and in honor of that, we’re going to dive deep into this butterfly-shaped endocrine gland and what you should know about it.
As the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, the thyroid is one of your endocrine glands that is located in your neck, just above your collarbone. The thyroid makes the hormones Triiodothyronine (aka T3), Tetraiodothyronine (aka thyroxine or T4), and Calcitonin. The thyroid is a vital hormone gland that works with your pituitary gland to make the proper amount of thyroid hormones.
When there is an issue with your thyroid, you can experience problems with metabolism, your weight, energy, mood, digestion, body temperature, the rate of your heartbeat, and the growth and development of your body. The National Institutes of Health says “Thyroid problems are most likely to occur in women or in people over age 60. Having a family history of thyroid disorders also increases the risk.” However, they also explained that thyroid issues can be difficult to diagnose because their symptoms are so similar to other conditions and can often be too subtle to notice.
Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, occurs when your thyroid isn’t producing enough of the critical hormones. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Nearly 1 in 20 Americans ages 12 and older has an underactive thyroid.”
Symptoms: Symptoms can include pain and stiffness in your joints, fatigue, cold sensitivity, dry skin, weight gain, thinning hair, depression, impaired memory, increased levels of blood cholesterol, muscle weakness, constipation, and abnormal menstrual cycles. As many of these symptoms are associated with other conditions, you might not even be aware that you are suffering from hypothyroidism.
Causes: Some of the causes of hypothyroidism are autoimmune diseases, radiation therapy, thyroid surgery, medications you’re taking, too much/little iodine consumption, and damage to the pituitary gland. Some women also develop hypothyroidism as a result of pregnancy. If you have a family history of hypothyroidism, you are more at risk to be afflicted with it as well.
Treatments: If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, your doctor is most likely to prescribe hormone replacement therapy. From there, you’ll need to regularly check your hormone levels as your doctor may occasionally need to adjust your dosage.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about one in 100 people have an overactive thyroid, also called hyperthyroidism. This occurs when your thyroid is producing more thyroid hormones than your body needs.
Symptoms: Symptoms can include an increase in appetite, unexpected weight loss, irregular heartbeat, irritability, anxiousness, an increase in sweating, muscle weakness, abnormal menstruation, hand and finger trembles, difficulty sleeping, and an increase in body temperature. The symptoms typically begin slowly and often people suffering from this condition don’t notice them at all, or are unaware that there could be a problem in the first place.
Causes: The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease. Additional causes are Plummer’s disease, type 1 diabetes, swollen thyroid, thyroid nodules, and complications with your pituitary gland.
Treatments: The severity of your symptoms will likely determine the best method of treatment. If you are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, your doctor may simply prescribe medicine. In some cases, you’ll be prescribed antithyroid medicine which blocks it from creating more hormones and typically doesn’t cause lasting damage to the thyroid.
In more extreme cases you’ll be given radioiodine treatments that kill the cells in your thyroid that produce the thyroid hormones, or your doctor will suggest surgery that removes most or all of the thyroid. The catch is both of these procedures often cause permanent hypothyroidism which could require you to be on thyroid medication indefinitely.
The U.S. Department of Health said, “Thyroid cancer happens when cancer cells form from the tissues of the thyroid gland.”
Symptoms: Symptoms can include swollen glands in your neck, trouble swallowing and/or breathing, severe pain in your neck and/or throat, hoarseness, persistent cough, or a lump in the front of your neck. However, it’s important to note that in many cases, patients with thyroid cancer don’t have any recognizable symptoms at all. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, patients might not have any indication they have thyroid cancer unless it’s being looked for, or until it advances to later stages.
Causes: Causes of thyroid cancer include genetics, radiation exposure, and having breast cancer. Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed than men, but thyroid cancer can occur in both sexes at any age.
Treatments: The Office of Women’s Health stated, “The main treatment for thyroid cancer is surgery to take out the whole thyroid gland or as much of it as can be safely removed. Surgery alone can cure thyroid cancer if the cancer is small and has not yet spread to lymph nodes.”
In some cases, a patient may also require radioiodine therapy after surgery. Radioiodine therapy destroys any thyroid cancer cells that were not removed during surgery or that have spread to other parts of the body.
Testing for Thyroid Issues
Additional thyroid issues that can occur include, but aren’t limited to:
- Goiter – enlargement of the thyroid gland
- Thyroid nodules – lumps in the thyroid gland
- Thyroiditis – swelling of the thyroid
The question is, if the symptoms are so subtle that some people don’t know they have a thyroid issue in the first place, how can they be diagnosed? Many tests can be performed to diagnose thyroid problems such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT scan), and/or ultrasound. When these diagnostic imaging tests show signs of a thyroid problem, sometimes additional tests will be ordered up to and including thyroid function tests, fine-needle aspiration biopsies, additional blood tests, and thyroid scans with an isotope of radioactive iodine. For example, if you have an ultrasound that indicates you have cysts, nodules, or tumors on your thyroid, your doctor may order a fine-needle aspiration biopsy to determine if cancer is present.
In most cases, if your doctor suspects you have a problem with your thyroid, the first tests will be a physical exam and a thyroid panel blood test. However, conditions such as thyroid cancer cannot be accurately and conclusively detected or diagnosed by a single blood test. On the other hand, in most cases, additional testing such as diagnostic imaging tests will only be required if the initial results of a physical exam and blood panel are inconclusive, or if they indicate there is potentially a problem that needs further investigation. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important you be completely forthcoming with your doctor about any and all symptoms you have.
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