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The Small, But Powerful Thyroid: Conditions, Risk Factors, Testing, and Treatments

Your thyroid is a small gland, but it’s responsible for producing hormones that play a crucial role in many of the body’s systems. If your thyroid dysfunctions, it can disrupt the healthy functioning of vital organs. Fortunately, once diagnosed, you can live a normal, healthy life.

January is National Thyroid Awareness Month, dedicated to talking about thyroid disease, the conditions and symptoms, and the importance of diagnosis and treatment. An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, yet as many as 60 percent of them are unaware they have it. The month-long focus shines a light on thyroid disorders and encourages people to get tested.

What Is the Thyroid?

Although many people have heard of the thyroid, they may not realize the significance of the small, butterfly-shaped gland in the lower neck area. The thyroid gland is part of your endocrine system, a complex network of glands and organs. Your endocrine system uses hormones to control and coordinate your body’s metabolism, energy level, reproduction, growth and development, and response to injury, stress, and mood. 

The two main types of thyroid disease occur when the thyroid gland produces too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or not enough (hypothyroidism). A few other common diseases related to the thyroid include: 

  • Graves’ disease
  • Goiter
  • Hashimoto’s disease
  • Thyroid cancer
Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) occurs when the thyroid is more active than it should be. This form of thyroid disease is most common in people 50 and younger and occurs when your thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. Hyperthyroidism can accelerate your body’s metabolism, causing unintentional weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. 

Hyperthyroidism can mimic other health problems, making it difficult for your doctor to diagnose. However, symptoms may include:

  • Unintentional weight loss, even when your appetite and food intake stay the same or increase
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)—commonly more than 100 beats a minute
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Pounding of your heart (palpitations)
  • Increased appetite
  • Nervousness, anxiety, and irritability
  • Tremor—usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
  • Sweating
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
  • An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) may appear as a swelling at the base of your neck
  • Fatigue, muscle weakness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skin thinning
  • Fine, brittle hair
Hypothyroidism 

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain crucial hormones. This type of thyroid condition is most common in people over 60. Because some of the symptoms in older adults can be unspecific and mimic other diseases, the condition can be underdiagnosed. 

Symptoms and signs of hypothyroidism vary depending on the severity of the hormone deficiency. Problems typically develop gradually, often over several years. Some symptoms might be less noticeable at first or even attributed to getting older; however, as your metabolism continues to slow, you may develop more-obvious problems. Common symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Puffy face
  • Hoarseness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness
  • Pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints
  • Heavier than regular or irregular menstrual periods
  • Thinning hair
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

Who’s at Risk for Thyroid Disease?

Thyroid disease can affect anyone—men, women, infants, teenagers, and seniors. It can be present at birth (typically hypothyroidism) and develop as you age (often after menopause in women). However, women are about five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition than men. You may be at a higher risk of developing thyroid disease if you:

  • Have a family history of thyroid disease.
  • Have a medical condition (including pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, primary adrenal insufficiency, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and Turner syndrome).
  • Take a medication that’s high in iodine (amiodarone).
  • Are older than 60, especially in women.
  • Have had treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer (thyroidectomy or radiation).

Diagnosing Thyroid Disease

A blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels is the only way to diagnose thyroid disease officially. However, you can perform a self-check at home.

How to Perform a Self-Check:

Hold a hand mirror in front of your neck, above your collarbone, so that you can see the area below your Adam’s apple.

  1. Tilt your head back, and take a sip of water.
  2. Swallow the water, and watch your neck for signs of bulging.
  3. Repeat the steps a few times to ensure you don’t see apparent signs of bulging.
  4. Contact your physician if you discover a bulge, nodule, or enlarged gland.

Thyroid Disease Treatments

There are various treatment options for thyroid disease depending on the cause of your thyroid condition. 

Hyperthyroidism 

  • Antithyroid drugs: These are medications that stop your thyroid from making hormones.
  • Radioactive iodine: This treatment damages your thyroid cells, preventing them from making high levels of thyroid hormones.
  • Beta-blockers: These medications don’t change the amount of hormones in your body, but they help control your symptoms.
  • Surgery: A more permanent form of treatment, your healthcare provider may surgically remove your thyroid (thyroidectomy) to stop it from creating hormones. However, you will need to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of your life.

Hypothyroidism 

  • Thyroid replacement medication: A synthetic (manufactured) drug is prescribed to add thyroid hormones back into your body. You can control thyroid disease and live a normal life by using medication.

Protect Your Thyroid Health

National Thyroid Awareness Month is the perfect time to talk with your healthcare provider about taking a simple blood test to determine if your thyroid is functioning correctly. Early detection is the best defense against thyroid disease, which can cause multiple health problems if left untreated. So why take unnecessary chances with your health? Instead, contact your healthcare provider for a referral today!

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