What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland found in the base of the neck, below the Adam’s apple. Despite the thyroid’s small size, it produces a hormone that affects every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. Your thyroid needs to be healthy and work properly to regulate your body’s metabolism.
There are various reasons a thyroid might stop working the way it should, such as:
· Autoimmune diseases—Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s disease
· Thyroid nodules—benign lumps in the thyroid
· Thyroiditis—an inflamed thyroid
What exactly does the thyroid do?
The thyroid gland extracts a mineral called iodine from the bloodstream. It uses the iodine to make two kinds of thyroid hormones commonly called T3 and T4. These hormones:
· Control your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories)
· Change the speed at which food moves through your digestive track
· Can slow down or speed up your heartbeat
· Affect your body temperature and muscle strength
The thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland (located in the brain) which sends out a thyroid-stimulating hormone called TSH.
Risk factors for thyroid disorders
· Family history
· Prescription medications—specifically Lithium or Amiodarone
· Radiation therapy—any radiation therapy to the head or neck
· Age—the older you are, the higher your risk
What is hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)?
Hypothyroidism is a disease where the thyroid does not make enough hormones to meet your body’s needs. As a result, your body’s functions slow down. Some symptoms of an underactive thyroid are:
· Weight gain
· Feeling cold all the time
· Joint and muscle pain
· Dry skin, dry and thinning hair
· Irregular periods, fertility problems
· High cholesterol
What is hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)?
Hyperthyroidism is a disease where the thyroid makes more hormones than your body needs. As a result, your body’s functions speed up and push your metabolism into overdrive. Some symptoms of an overactive thyroid include:
· Nervousness, anxiety
· Fatigue or muscle weakness
· Feeling hot all the time
· Trouble sleeping
· Shaky hands
· Rapid, irregular heartbeat
· Weight loss
· Mood swings
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you are experiencing the symptoms listed, you should contact your primary care provider (PCP). If your PCP suspects a thyroid problem, they will run diagnostic bloodwork to measure your TSH levels. Your PCP may also test for T3 and T4 (thyroid hormones) levels and antibodies to determine the severity and cause of the disease.
Underactive thyroids are usually treated with a synthetic thyroid hormone. Finding the correct medication may take time as each person’s thyroid hormones are very precise. Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding what time of day to take the medication and exact dose. Your doctor will follow you to make sure your TSH levels stabilize. Once on synthetic thyroid hormones, most adults take the medication throughout their lives.
Overactive thyroids can be treated with medicines, radioiodine therapy or thyroid surgery. Usually medication treatment will last for about a year.
You should note that many of the symptoms of thyroid disease are the same as other conditions. Regular preventive checkups with your PCP are the best way to have a medical practitioner who knows you and can make the right diagnosis.
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