What Is the Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck that produces hormones which control the speed of your metabolism. Thyroid disorders can slow down or race up metabolism by upsetting the production of thyroid hormones. You may experience a wide range of symptoms when hormone levels become too low or too high.
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If you are always feeling exhausted every day with little or no activity, or if you’ve gained weight, experienced hair loss, get chills, sweaty or anxious, then your thyroid gland is not functioning properly.
Symptom of Thyroid Disorders
Swelling in the Neck
A swelling in the neck is a sign that something may be wrong with the thyroid. A goiter may occur with either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Sometimes swelling in the neck can result from thyroid cancer or nodules, lumps that grow inside the thyroid. It can also be caused by a conditon unrelated to the thyroid.
Weight Gain or Loss
Another common sign of thyroid problem is an unexplained change in weight. Weight gain may mean low levels of thyroid hormones, a condition called hypothyroidism. If the thyroid produces more hormones than the body needs, you may lose weight unexpectedly. This is known as hyperthyroidism.
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Symptom: Hair Loss
Hair loss is another sign that thyroid hormones may be malfunctioning. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can cause hair to fall out. The hair may grow back once the thyroid disorder is treated.
Changes in Heart Rate
Thyroid hormones affect nearly every organ in the body and can influence how quickly the heart beats. People with hypothyroidism may notice their heart rate is slower than usual. Hyperthyroidism may also cause the heart to speed up. It can trigger heart palpitations, increased blood pressure and the sensation of a pounding heart
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Feeling Too Cold or Hot
Thyroid disorders can upset the ability of the body to regulate temperature. People with hypothyroidism may feel cold more often than usual. Hyperthyroidism tends to have the opposite effect, causing excessive sweating.
Changes in Energy or Mood
Thyroid disorders can have a noticeable impact on your energy level and mood. Hypothyroidism tends to make people feel depressed and lethargic. Hyperthyroidism can cause restlessness, problems sleeping, anxiety, and irritability.
Other Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism can cause many other symptoms, including:
- Abnormal menstrual periods
- Dry skin and brittle nails
- Numbness or tingling in the hands
Other Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism
Hyperthyroidism can also cause additional symptoms, such as:
Thyroid Disorder and Menopause
The symptoms of thyroid disorders are often mistaken for menopause because it can cause changes in menstrual cycle and mood. A blood test can determine if thyroid disorder or menopause is responsible for the symptoms. In some cases, both conditions combined may cause symptoms.
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If you think you have symptoms of a thyroid problem, consult your doctor for proper diagnosis. People with symptoms or risk factors may need tests more often. Hypothyroidism more frequently affects women over age 60. Hyperthyroidism is also more common in women than men.
Thyroid Neck Examination
A careful examination in the mirror may help you spot an enlarged thyroid. Tilt your head back, take a drink of water, and as you swallow, observe your neck below the Adam’s apple and above the collarbone. Look for lumps or protrusions, then repeat the process a few times. See a doctor immediately if you see a bulge or lump.
Diagnosis for Thyroid Disorders
Your doctor will perform a blood test to help identify a thyroid disorder. This test measures the level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), a kind of master hormone that regulates the work of the thyroid gland. If TSH is high, it means that your thyroid function is too low (hypothyroid). If TSH is low, then it generally means the thyroid is overactive (hyperthyroid.) Your doctor may also check levels of other thyroid hormones in your blood. In some cases, imaging studies are used and biopsies are taken to examine a thyroid abnormality.
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Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid gland. The result causes damage to the thyroid, inhibiting it from generating enough hormones. Hashimoto’s disease appears to run in families.
Other Causes of Hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism results from a problem with the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the brain. This gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid to do its job. If your pituitary gland does not produce enough TSH, levels of thyroid hormones will fall. Other causes of hypothyroidism include temporary swelling of the thyroid or medications that affect thyroid function.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid gland and causes the release of high levels of thyroid hormones. One of the major sign of Graves’ disease is a visible and uncomfortable swelling behind the eyes.
Other Causes of Hyperthyroidism
Hyperthyroidism can also result from thyroid nodules. These are lumps that develop inside the thyroid and sometimes begin producing thyroid hormones. Large lumps may create a noticeable goiter. Smaller lumps can be detected with ultrasound. A thyroid uptake and scan can tell if the lump is producing too much thyroid hormone.
Complications of Thyroid Disorder
Hypothyroidism can raise cholesterol levels and make you more likely to have a stroke or heart attack when left untreated. In severe cases, very low levels of thyroid hormones can prompt a loss of consciousness and life-threatening drop in body temperature. Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to brittle bones and severe heart problems.
Your doctor will most likely prescribe thyroid hormones in the form of a pill if you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism. This usually leads to visible improvements within a couple of weeks. Long-term treatment can lead to more energy, lower cholesterol levels, and gradual weight loss. Most people with hypothyroidism may need to take thyroid hormones for life.
The most common treatment for hyperthyroidism is antithyroid medication. This drug lowers the amount of hormones produced by the thyroid. The condition may eventually go away, but many people need to remain on medication for the long term. Other medications may be given to reduce symptoms such as rapid pulse and tremors. Another option is radioactive iodine, which destroys the thyroid gland over the course of 6 to 18 weeks. Once the gland is destroyed, or removed by surgery, most patients must begin taking thyroid hormones in pill form.
Surgery for Thyroid Disorders
Removing the thyroid gland can cure hyperthyroidism, but the procedure is only recommended if antithyroid drugs fail to work, or if there is a large goiter. Surgery may also be recommended for patients with thyroid nodules. Once the thyroid is removed, most patients require daily supplements of thyroid hormones to avoid developing hypothyroidism.