The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck that regulates several metabolic processes in your body by making hormones. The primary hormone it makes is Thyroxine or T4. When a small amount of T4 is released from your thyroid it is converted into triiodothyronine or T3 which is the most active hormone. If your doctor orders a thyroid test, they will look at one or both of these numbers to evaluate if there could be an issue.
There are several different conditions that can affect your thyroid. They are:
- Thyroid Nodules
- Thyroid Cancer
Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid doesn’t make enough hormone. There are many things that can cause your thyroid to make too little hormone such as autoimmune disorders, thyroid removal, prescription medications, iodine deficiency and pituitary disease. The hormones made by your thyroid affect growth, development, and other processes, so, not enough thyroid hormone can cause several health concerns.
Hypothyroidism is a very common thyroid condition. Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Weight Gain
- Cold Intolerance
- Excessive Sleepiness
- Dry Hair and Skin
- Muscle Cramps
- High Cholesterol
- Decreased Concentration
- Leg Swelling
- Aches and Pains
Hypothyroidism requires life-long therapy. If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism your doctor may prescribe T4 hormone replacement therapy. It may take some time to determine the right amount of T4 you need to stabilize your numbers. During this time, your doctor will monitor you with a blood test about every 6 weeks until your numbers are stable.
Hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism. It means that your thyroid is producing too much T4 hormone. Your thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland in your brain, which is controlled by the hypothalamus. If any of these glands are overactive it can cause an elevated level of T4 to be released by your thyroid.
People who have mild hyperthyroidism may show no symptoms at all. The symptoms of hyperthyroidism become more obvious as the condition worsens and can include:
- Excessive sweating
- Heat intolerance
- Increased bowel movements
- Tremor or shaking
- Nervousness, agitation, anxiety
- Rapid heart rate, palpitations, irregular heart rate
- Weight loss
- Fatigue, weakness
- Decreased concentration
- Irregular and scant menstrual flow
- Fine or brittle hair
- Thinning skin
- Sleep disturbances
Hyperthyroidism can be caused by several things including:
- Functioning adenoma and toxic multinodular goiter (TMNG)
- Excessive intake of thyroid hormones
- Abnormal secretion of TSH
- Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland)
- Excessive iodine intake
- Graves’ Disease
Grave’s Disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. With Graves Disease, the thyroid gland has lost the ability to respond to the pituitary gland that is supposed to control it. Grave’s Disease runs in families and women are 5 times more likely than men to get it.
Depending on the cause of your hyperthyroidism and the severity you doctor may recommend one or more of these treatment options.
- Treating the symptoms
- Antithyroid drugs
- Radioactive iodine
Thyroid nodules are lumps that appear in an otherwise healthy thyroid gland. These lumps often don’t cause any symptoms and are usually found during a routine examination of your neck by your doctor or by an x-ray that was taken for other reasons.
Women are three times more likely to develop thyroid nodules than men. Most women will develop a nodule by the time they are 50 years old. 95% of thyroid nodules are benign (not cancer). These nodules are usually an overgrowth of normal thyroid tissue.
While most thyroid nodules are benign, some can be cancer, so if you feel a lump in the front of your neck, tell your doctor. They will most likely order a blood test to see if your thyroid is producing the right about of hormones and an ultrasound of your thyroid and the lymph nodes in your neck area to rule out cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2018 there will be approximately 54,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the US and about 2060 people may die from the disease. The death rate from thyroid cancer is relatively low compared to other types of cancer, partly due to early detection.
However, there are some risk factors that you can control. They are:
Low Iodine Diet – Most Americans get enough iodine in their diets since it is added to salt, however, a diet that is low in iodine may increase your risk of papillary cancer if you are also exposed to radiation.
Radiation Exposure – Such as from medical treatments for certain types of cancer or fallout from power plant accidents.
If you are diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following treatments depending on the stage of your cancer.
- Radioactive iodine treatment
- Thyroid hormone therapy
- External beam radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
Any type of cancer diagnoses is scary. But early detection can improve your prognoses tremendously; yet another reason to get your annual wellness exam every year.