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A Look at Thyroid Disease
What Is the Thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland covering the windpipe in your neck. It is part of the endocrine system, a network of glands which regulate tissue and organ function by secreting hormones into the bloodstream. The thyroid gland regulates metabolism, and growth and development with thyroid hormones (T4, T3). Thyroid hormones regulate cell metabolism (energy production), which affects nearly every organ and cell in the body.
When the thyroid gland produces less hormones than the body needs, the result is hypothyroidism. When more hormones are produced than necessary, the result is hyperthyroidism . Timely detection and proper treatment of these conditions allows people to lead normal, active lives. Left untreated, serious negative health effects can result.
What Are the Symptoms?
What clues should you be looking for? If you have any of the following symptoms, or you suspect there is a problem with your thyroid, contact your doctor.
When the thyroid is not producing enough hormones, body systems are slowed. Hypothyroidism may cause:
- Slow mental activity with poor memory
- Slow physical activity
- Weakness and fatigue
- Cold intolerance
- Dry skin and hair loss
- Depressed mood
- Problems with menstruation
Complications of untreated hypothyroidism may include:
When the thyroid produces too many hormones, body systems are sped up. Hyperthyroidism may cause:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased sweating
- Tremors in the hand
- Difficulty sleeping
- Problems with menstruation
- Frequent bowel movements
Complications of untreated hyperthyroidism include:
Subclinical Thyroid Conditions
There are subclinical versions of these thyroid conditions. This occurs when you do not have symptoms, but abnormalities show up in routine blood tests.
Subclinical hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are associated with increased risk of heart-related health conditions. It is generally recommended that subclinical thyroid disorders be treated, although there is some controversy. Your doctor may suggest a wait and see approach before deciding on a course of action.
How Is a It Diagnosed?
If you have any of the above symptoms or have risk factors for developing a thyroid disease, talk to your doctor. Tests can be ordered that will assess how your thyroid is functioning.
For example, the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test may be done. TSH, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, triggers the thyroid gland to make more thyroid hormone. The level of TSH in your body provide a good indicator of how your thyroid is working. If you have a higher-than-normal level, this may mean that you have hypothyroidism. Conversely, a lower-than-normal level may indicate hyperthyroidism. The amounts of thyroid hormones T4 and T3 can also be checked.
A thyroid antibody test can also be ordered. If your body identifies the thyroid as foreign, antibodies are created to attack it. This attack can lead to damage and an increase in the production of thyroid hormones. Depending on which antibodies are present, your doctor can determine the type of thyroid disease you have.
What Treatments Are Available?
If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, normal thyroid levels may be attained by supplementing the body's hormone with a synthetic hormone medication. This medication is available in tablets and must be taken daily for life. The dosage prescribed by a doctor is carefully and gradually adjusted until a normal TSH level has been achieved. The TSH test will have to be repeated to make sure that the dosage continues to be appropriate.
Taking too much of this medication can cause you to have the hyperthyroidism, so it is important that you work closely with your doctor to keep TSH at the right level.
If you are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, the treatment is more complex and can include antithyroid drug therapy, beta-blockers, and radioactive iodine treatment. In some cases, thyroid surgery may be done, which involves removing the thyroid gland.
Remember, if you are experiencing symptoms or have a family history of thyroid disease, do not be afraid to ask your doctor to do a diagnostic test. Timely detection and treatment of a thyroid disorder can greatly enhance your quality of life—for the rest of your life.
American Thyroid Association
Hormone Health Network—Endocrine Society
Public Health Agency of Canada
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Baskin HJ, Cobin RH. American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists medical guidelines for clinical practice for the evaluation and treatment of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Endocr Pract. 2002;8(6):457-469.
Gaitonde DY, Rowley KD, et al. Hypothyroidism: An update. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(3):244-251.
Hyperthyroidism and thyrotoxicosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 10, 2014. Accessed April 21, 2014.
Hypothyroidism. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/endocrine/hypothyroidism/Pages/fact-sheet.aspx. Updated March 13, 2013. Accessed April 21, 2015.
Hypothyroidism in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 2, 2015. Accessed April 21, 2015.
Primary hyperthyroidism. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/endocrine/primary-hyperparathyroidism/Pages/fact-sheet.aspx. Updated August 14, 2012. Accessed April 21, 2015.
Thyroid disorders overview. The Endocrine Society Hormone Health Network website. Available at: http://www.hormone.org/diseases-and-conditions/thyroid/overview. Updated May 2013. Accessed August April 21, 2015.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 04/2015
- Update Date: 04/21/2015