Know the Signs of Thyroid Issues

Learn the warning signs and find out how to keep your thyroid healthy with these tips.

A doctor uses a model of the thyroid to explain signs of thyroid issues and how to do a thyroid check at home.

Updated on June 24, 2022

Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The thyroid gland releases hormones that regulate your body’s metabolism. If your thyroid doesn’t work right—if it produces too much or too little thyroid hormones—many important body functions can get out of whack. We spoke with endocrinologist Javaid Wani, MD, of Endocrinology Associates in Belmont, North Carolina, to learn the warning signs of thyroid issues. 

Signs of thyroid problems 

When the thyroid releases too little thyroid hormone, called hypothyroidism, many important body functions slow down, including your heart rate and digestion. Symptoms of hypothyroidism usually develop gradually and can be subtle. They may include: 

  • Feeling tired, sluggish, and weak 
  • Weight gain 
  • Depression 
  • Constipation 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Joint or muscle pain and weakness 
  • Dry skin and hair loss 
  • Irregular or heavier periods, fertility problems

Sometimes your body releases too much thyroid hormone. “When there is excessive production of thyroid hormone, the condition is called hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid,” says Dr. Wani. This causes your body’s functions to speed up, which can make you jittery, irritable, and anxious. Other signs of hyperthyroidism include: 

  • Unintentional weight loss 
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat and chest pain 
  • Excessive sweating and sensitivity to heat 
  • Muscle weakness, shaky hands 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • More frequent bowel movements 
  • Missed or light menstrual periods 
  • Protruding eyes 

Severe hyperthyroidism, particularly in older people, can cause heart rhythm disorders and, if left untreated, can result in major damage to the heart muscle—possibly even congestive heart failure, says Wani. 

When you have hyperthyroidism, your thyroid can develop growths called thyroid nodules. They are usually benign (harmless) but sometimes they can be a sign of, or turn into, thyroid cancer. Thyroid nodules can also cause thyroid dysfunction, says Wani. 

Another sign of a thyroid problem is a lump on the front of your neck in the area of your thyroid gland. This is called a goiter, and it can develop with both hypo- or hyperthyroidism. A goiter can make your neck appear swollen or enlarged. You may notice it yourself, or your healthcare provider (HCP) may find it during a routine exam. Goiters can be caused by iodine deficiency. They’re extremely rare in the United States, says Wani, since iodine-rich food is readily available. When goiters do occur in the U.S., they’re typically due to something else, such as nodules or autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s disease (which can cause hypothyroidism) or Graves’ disease (an autoimmune condition that can cause hyperthyroidism). 

Do a thyroid check at home

About 20 million Americans are estimated to have thyroid problems and up to 60 percent of these people may be unaware of their condition, according to the American Thyroid Association. As with most conditions, the sooner you catch and treat it, the better. So it’s a good idea to do a thyroid self-check periodically. All you need is a handheld mirror and a glass of water. Follow these steps: 

  1. Hold the mirror in your hand, focusing on the lower front area of your neck, just above your collarbones. 
  2. Lean your head back, but not so much that you can’t see the mirror. 
  3. Take a drink of water. As you swallow, check your thyroid area for any unusual bulges or protrusions. Touch the area on your neck, feeling for any lumps. 
  4. Repeat the steps a few times to get a good look. 

When to see your HCP 

If you see anything suspicious during your thyroid self-check or if you have symptoms suggesting signs of a thyroid problem, see your HCP. Most thyroid disorders can be diagnosed with blood tests and an ultrasound scan. If your HCP suspects thyroid cancer, a biopsy will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. 

Keep your thyroid healthy 

While some thyroid disorders are caused by things you can’t really control, like autoimmune problems or genetics, there are steps you can take to promote a healthy thyroid. 

  • Don’t smoke. Chemicals in cigarettes can increase the risk of Graves’ disease. 
  • Do a thyroid self-check occasionally. 
  • Get a blood test. If you have a family history of thyroid disease, are over age 60, take certain medications (like the antidepressant lithium or the heart medicine amiodarone), have undergone radiation therapy to the head or neck, or have symptoms associated with a thyroid disease, ask your HCP if you should get a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test. It’s a simple blood test that can determine if your thyroid is functioning normally. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. While the exact reason is not completely understood, obesity may indirectly cause hypothyroidism, says Wani.

One thing you should not do for thyroid health is take supplements that claim to benefit the thyroid. “There isn’t enough evidence that any diet supplement can help your thyroid,” says Wani. In fact, some supplements can harm you.

Certain supplements may contain dangerously high levels of iodine that can lead to hyperthyroidism, Wani says. While iodine deficiency is a major cause of goiter in underdeveloped countries, Wani explains that Americans get enough iodine in their diet to support a healthy thyroid. Even if you’re on a restricted diet, you still get enough, he says. 

A thyroid disorder can make you feel very sick if left untreated. But most thyroid problems can be addressed by an endocrinologist or your primary care provider, especially when they’re diagnosed and treated early. Effective treatments are available that can help you feel like yourself again so you can live an active, productive life.

Article sources open article sources

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hypothyroidism. Last reviewed March 2022.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hyperthyroidism. Last reviewed August 2021.
American Thyroid Association. General Information. Accessed June 15, 2021. American Thyroid Association. General Information. Accessed June 15, 2021

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