Do you know what your thyroid does? Do you know where it is in your body? For many people, the location and purpose of this important little gland, which acts like the throttle for almost all of your body systems, is a mystery. Yet as much as 9% of the population has thyroid problems – which can wreak havoc on most of your major internal systems, upsetting your digestive system, interfering with your cardiovascular system, and throwing off your metabolism. Thyroid hormones can affect the function of everything from your heart and lungs to your emotional well-being.
Thyroid Problems Revealed
Your thyroid is an endocrine gland, and the hormones that it produces, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, often referred to collectively as thyroid hormone, help control the pace of all of your physiological body functions. When the thyroid produces too little hormone, things in your body can slow down too much. When it produces too much thyroid hormone, some of your body systems go into overdrive.
Either situation—too much or too little thyroid hormone—hurts your health.
When the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone, it is overactive. The condition is called hyperthyroidism. With hyperthyroidism, all of your major body systems are in overdrive, which can result in a host of unpleasant symptoms, from anxiety to diarrhea. Untreated, an overactive thyroid can eventually lead to congestive heart failure and be fatal.
When the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone, it is underactive. The condition is called hypothyroidism. In this scenario, all of your major body systems function too slowly, resulting in symptoms ranging from weight gain to depression. Underactive thyroid, when left untreated in extreme cases, can eventually lead to coma and even death.
Symptoms of Thyroid Problems—Not the Usual Suspect
The tricky thing about a problematic thyroid is that many of the symptoms that may result from hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism are easy to dismiss as nonsymptoms or as the result of some other condition or lifestyle factor. For example, weight gain -- a symptom of hypothyroidism -- is a common problem. Many people experience weight gain as they age and usually attribute it to such factors as a reduction in activity levels or an increase in calorie intake. Few people would think that their weight gain -- particularly unexplained weight gain -- could be a potential sign of an underlying thyroid problem.
And alone, weight gain probably isn't enough to cause thyroid concerns. However, coupled with some other easily dismissed or often overlooked symptoms, such as fatigue and depression, it could be.
Unfortunately, someone could have all the classic symptoms of hyper- or hypothyroidism and still not be aware they have a medical condition.
Do you have a cluster of symptoms that has slipped under your health radar?
Examine the following two groups. Consider if you have recently experienced any of the symptoms listed. Take note only of those symptoms that mark a departure from what is typical or normal for you.
- I'm always tired or lack energy.
- My skin is dry, coarse.
- My hair is dry, coarse.
- I'm very sensitive to cold temperatures.
- My periods are heavy and irregular.
- My face is puffy.
- I've gained weight unexpectedly.
- I feel really down, depressed.
- I'm experiencing muscle cramps or muscle pain and tenderness.
- My heart rate is slower than normal.
- I'm constipated.
- I'm struggling with infertility.
- I feel slow mentally.
- I have a goiter (swelling of the neck below the Adam's apple).
- My libido has decreased.
- I've lost weight unexpectedly.
- I have lost weight despite an increase in appetite.
- I feel irritable and nervous.
- I feel weakness and tremors in my muscles.
- My periods are irregular.
- I have difficulty sleeping.
- I don't see as clearly or my eyes are irritated.
- I have an enlarged thyroid (goiter).
- I'm very sensitive to warm temperatures.
- I have heart palpitations or rapid heart beats.
- I have more frequent bowel movements or diarrhea.
- My blood pressure is high.
- My heart rate is high.
- I'm often sweaty.
- My hair is thinning.
Which of the following is most true for you?
If you have many of the symptoms listed above in Group A, your answers indicate that you may have hypothyroidism.
The symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Dry, coarse skin
- Dry, coarse hair
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Heavy and/or irregular periods
- Puffy tissues
- Unexplained weight gain
- Muscle cramps, muscle pain and tenderness
- Slower than normal heart rate
- Mental lethargy
- Goiter (swelling of the thyroid, located just below the Adam's apple)
- Decreased libido
Together, a cluster of the above symptoms could be reason to speak with your doctor. You and your doctor can decide if thyroid testing is needed to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Hypothyroidism can have many different causes. The thyroid gland may be damaged, causing it to produce too little thyroid hormone. Another gland, called the pituitary gland, may be failing to produce enough hormone to stimulate the thyroid hormone. Or, hypothyroidism could be caused by Hashimoto's disease. It also can result from a diet deficient in iodine, although this is rare because iodine is found in many foods and in iodized salt.
Hypothyroidism is the most common kind of thyroid disorder. There are few known risk factors for developing hypothyroidism. Studies suggest it may be more common in:
- People who are over the age of 60, compared to younger people
- Women, compared to men
- People who have family members with a history of thyroid problems
- People with a history of autoimmune disorders or thyroid problems
If you have any of the above risk factors for hypothyroidism, in addition to the listed symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider soon. A simple blood test can reveal how much hormone your thyroid is producing.
Other Possible Causes
Some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism can be confused with other diseases, or vice versa. For example, depression often mimics hypothyroidism in that it can make you feel down and lethargic, can interfere with sleep habits, and can lead to weight changes. On the other hand, hypothyroidism may be missed if these symptoms are attributed to depression when a true thyroid disorder exists. Because hypothyroidism can easily be mistaken for something else, only a doctor can diagnose it.
Treatment of hypothyroidism is relatively easy. Most often it requires only a simple oral medication that makes up for the hormones the thyroid fails to produce, and this simple treatment can be continued for life.
Hypothyroidism can be a serious disease, but with simple and effective means of treating it so readily available, the only obstacle to good health is recognizing thyroid symptoms and seeking diagnosis and treatment if it is appropriate. Controlling a thyroid disorder as soon as possible will help minimize the stress it places upon your body.
If you have many of the symptoms listed above in Group B. Your answers indicate that you may have hyperthyroidism.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weight loss despite an increase in appetite
- Irritability and nervousness
- Muscle weakness and/or tremors
- Irregular periods
- Difficulty sleeping
- Compromised vision or eye irritation
- Goiter (swelling of the thyroid, located just below the Adam's apple)
- Sensitivity to warm temperatures
- Heart palpitations or rapid heart beat
- Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- High blood pressure
- High heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Excessive hair thinning
Together, a cluster of the above symptoms could be reason to speak with your doctor. You and your doctor can decide if thyroid testing is needed to rule out any underlying medical conditions. A simple blood test can reveal how much hormone your thyroid is producing.
Hyperthyroidism can have many different causes. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave's disease. Hyperthyroidism also could result from overtreating hypothyroidism or it could be due to Plummer's syndrome.
Hyperthyroidism is one of the more common thyroid disorders; however, it is less common than hypothyroidism. There are few clear risk factors for developing hyperthyroidism. Compared to the general population, it's more common in people who have a family history of thyroid disorder. Grave's disease is most common in women over age 20.
Other Possible Causes
Some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism can be confused with other conditions, or vice versa. For example, nervousness, anxiousness, and heart palpitations could be due to either an anxiety disorder or hyperthyroidism. Someone with heart palpitations might be diagnosed as a cardiac patient, or he or she may simply have an overactive thyroid. Also, hyperthyroid symptoms related to an over-sensitivity to hot temperatures or an intolerability to heat are often confused with symptoms of menopause in women.
Some symptoms of hyperthyroidism may simply slip under the radar, especially early in the disease. For example, someone with hyperthyroidism who is normally constipated may experience more regular bowel movements and not consider this a possible symptom of a thyroid condition.
If you have symptoms that could be due to hyperthyroidism, especially if you have a family history of hyperthyroidism, see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Effective treatments do exist. They range from medications and iodine treatments to surgery. The key is to recognize symptoms and seek treatment and diagnosis when appropriate, so that stress to the body is minimized.
None or only a few of the symptoms from either column above apply to me.
If you do not currently have a cluster of symptoms from either column A or B, you might still be concerned about the health of your thyroid. Given the health consequences of a poorly functioning thyroid, it may sound like a good idea to get it checked out just in case.
However, for people whose symptoms of thyroid disorder are few, mild, or non-existent, testing is not always a good thing. Although thyroid problems can be revealed with a simple blood test, very few health organizations recommend routine thyroid testing for the general population.
Screening of thyroid disorders is an imperfect system. The chance does exist that you could be misdiagnosed with hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism even when your thyroid is functioning within the healthy, normal range. A misdiagnosis of thyroid disorder could then send you down a path of more and unnecessary test procedures and unnecessary treatment that, in turn, may cause a normally functioning thyroid to function abnormally.
The chance for misdiagnosis is due in part to the fact that consensus among doctors, researchers, and labs is lacking regarding what constitutes average or normal levels of circulating thyroid hormone. If your blood levels of thyroid hormone are only slightly elevated, for example, you may face treatment decisions for which there is no clear-cut path.
Testing should be determined by patient and doctor on a case-by-case basis, so if you have concerns, speak with your healthcare provider. You will need to carefully consider your risks and your health history to determine if testing is right for you.
Regardless, any time that you do not feel like yourself and just can't seem to get back to feeling good again no matter what you do, it's always wise to discuss what you are experiencing with your healthcare provider. By actively patrolling the way that you feel and by listening to the way that your body is performing, you can potentially head off problems before they snowball.
In the meantime, living a healthy, active lifestyle is your best bet for preserving your quality of life and your health. There are no surefire ways to prevent thyroid disorders; however, a strong and healthy body is better able to defend itself against all forms of sickness and disease.