Thyroid disorders are conditions that affect the thyroid gland, a gland in the front of the neck at its base. It is a small organ wrapped around the windpipe (trachea) and shaped like a butterfly with two wide wings that extend around the sides of your throat. Like other glands in your body, your thyroid makes hormones that help control many vital functions of your body. It produces hormones that regulate blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, weight, and metabolism. These are vital functions that impact your health in the long term, but also the short term, such as your level of energy.
The Importance of Metabolism
Metabolism is a process by which the food you take into your body is transformed into energy. This energy is used throughout your entire body to keep many of its systems working correctly.
Your thyroid controls your metabolism with specific hormones–T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (Triiodothyronine). These two hormones tell the body’s cells how much energy to use. When your thyroid works properly, it will maintain the right amount of these hormones to keep your metabolism working at the right rate.
This process is supervised by your pituitary gland which is located in the center of your skull, below your brain. Your pituitary gland monitors and controls the amount of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream. When the pituitary gland detects a lack of thyroid hormones or a high level of hormones in your body, it will make adjustments with its own hormone called the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is sent to the thyroid to tell the thyroid what adjustments are needed to get the body back to its normal state.
Thyroid Diseases are Common
Thyroid disease is a general term for a medical condition that prevents your thyroid from making the right amount of hormones. Thyroid disease is prevalent in the United States. An estimated 20 million people have some type of thyroid disorder. It can affect anyone – women, men, teenagers, infants, and the elderly. It can be present at birth (typically hypothyroidism), and it can develop as you age (often after menopause). Women are about 5-8 times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid disorder than men.
You may be at risk for developing a 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
- Are older than age 60, especially in women
- Have had treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer
- Take a medication that is high in iodine
There are four main thyroid disorders:
- Hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid
- Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid
- Thyroid cancer, a malignancy in the cells of the thyroid
- Thyroid nodules, growths on the thyroid
Symptoms of each of these thyroid conditions include the following:
- Hyperthyroidism: weight loss, rapid heartbeat, tremors, sweating, anxiety, fatigue, trouble sleeping
- Hypothyroidism: unexplained weight gain, thinning hair, fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, depression, and/or impaired memory
- Thyroid cancer: lump on your neck, swollen lymph nodes, trouble swallowing, changes in your voice
- Thyroid nodules: sometimes there are no symptoms; other times, the nodules become enlarged and can be cancerous or benign
Hyperthyroidism occurs when your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone. The result is that your body uses energy too quickly. This, in turn, will do more than make you feel tired. It can also make your heart beat faster, cause you to lose weight without trying, and can make you feel nervous.
Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland makes too little thyroid hormone. You can end up feeling tired, gaining weight, and you may find you cannot tolerate cold temperatures.
Common Symptoms with Thyroid Disease
There are a variety of symptoms you could experience if you have a thyroid disease. Unfortunately, symptoms can often be very similar to the signs of other medical conditions and stages of life, making it difficult to know if your symptoms are related to a thyroid issue or something else entirely.
For the most part, the symptoms of thyroid disease can be divided into two groups — those related to having too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) and those related to having too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can include:
- Experiencing anxiety, irritability, and nervousness
- Trouble sleeping
- Losing weight
- An enlarged thyroid gland or a goiter
- Having muscle weakness and tremors
- Experiencing irregular menstrual periods or having your menstrual cycle stop
- Sensitivity to heat
- Vision problems or eye irritation
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can include:
- Feeling tired
- Gaining weight
- Experiencing forgetfulness
- Having a hoarse voice
- Experiencing an intolerance to cold temperatures
- Having frequent and heavy menstrual periods
- Having dry and coarse hair
- Hair loss
Causes of Thyroid Disease
The two main types of thyroid disease are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Both of these conditions can be caused by other diseases that impact how the thyroid gland works.
Conditions that can cause hypothyroidism include:
- Thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid gland. Thyroiditis can lower the amount of hormones your thyroid produces.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an inherited autoimmune condition where the body’s cells attack and damage the thyroid.
- Postpartum thyroiditis occurs in 5% to 9% of women after childbirth and is usually a temporary condition.
- Iodine deficiency is an important issue because iodine is used by the thyroid to produce hormones.
- A non-functioning thyroid gland is a condition that affects about 1 in 4,000 newborns. If left untreated, a child could have both physical and mental issues. All newborns are given a screening blood test in the hospital to check their thyroid function.
Conditions that can cause hyperthyroidism include:
- Graves’ disease can cause the entire thyroid gland to be overactive and produce too much hormone.
- Nodules can be overactive within the thyroid.
- Thyroiditis is a result of the thyroid releasing stored hormones for a few weeks or months, resulting in too many hormones in the body for a period of time.
- Excessive iodine can result from some medications and can cause your thyroid to make more hormones than needed.
Diagnosing Thyroid Disease
Sometimes it is hard to diagnose thyroid disease because its symptoms can be easily confused with symptoms of other conditions such as pregnancy or aging.
Your provider will use these tests:
- Blood tests to determine hormone levels (perhaps the most reliable way)
- Imaging tests
- Physical exams
Treating Thyroid Disease
The goal in treating thyroid disease is to return your thyroid hormone levels back to normal.
If you have high levels of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), treatment options can include:
- Antithyroid drugs to stop your thyroid from making hormones
- Radioactive iodine to damage the cells of your thyroid to prevent it from making high levels of thyroid hormones
- Beta blockers to control symptoms
- Surgery to remove your thyroid followed by replacement hormones
If you have hypothyroidism, the main treatment option is:
- Thyroid replacement medication to increase the level of thyroid hormones in your body
If you are concerned you may have thyroid disease, your provider will work closely with you to evaluate and diagnose your symptoms. Call us our Primary Care clinic at Catawba Valley Healthcare to schedule an appointment at (828) 695-5900.