Thyroid Conditions: Are You Running Slow – or on Overdrive?
SIOUX FALLS (June 1, 2013) - Women experiencing vague symptoms like low energy, weight gain and fatigue might blame a small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of their neck – the thyroid gland.
Low thyroid function can be to blame for symptoms like these, as well as brittle hair and nails, bloating, swelling in the legs or around the eyes, and constipation, said Dr. Margaux Añel-Tiangco, endocrinologist with Avera Medical Group Endocrinology. It’s called hypothyroidism, and it’s marked by underproduction of the hormone thyroxine, which affects your metabolism. Because symptoms are vague, it’s not unusual for low thyroid levels to go untreated. Yet continued low thyroid function can raise cholesterol levels, placing you at greater risk for heart attack or stroke. Also, during pregnancy, untreated hypothyroidism can be harmful to the baby.
Low thyroid function is more common than overactive thyroid. The incidence of hypothyroidism is about 5 percent of the population, and it’s five to eight times more common in women than in men. The incidence of overactive thyroid – hyperthyroidism – is about 1-2 percent of the population.
Thyroid problems can’t be diagnosed on symptoms alone, however. “It’s not unusual for people to come in to their physician’s office and say they’re feeling tired and gaining weight and want a thyroid test – and it comes back normal,” Dr. Añel-Tiangco said. “There are many other conditions that fatigue, low energy and weight gain can be attributed to,” she added.
Thyroid function can be checked with a simple blood test. Because thyroid problems – especially low thyroid – can be easily treated with medication, it’s a good diagnosis to rule out if vague symptoms persist, Dr. Añel-Tiangco said.
Low thyroid function is usually caused by an autoimmune disorder, known as Hashimoto’s disease, in which the body produces antibodies to the thyroid, causing it to lose all or some of its function. Other causes could include damage to the thyroid gland, a history of thyroid cancer, past radioactive iodine treatment for overactive thyroid, or thyroid surgery for nodules or cancer. The standard treatment is levothyroxine, the synthetic replacement of the natural thyroid hormone, thyroxine.
The opposite of low thyroid function – overactivity of this gland, is hyperthyroidism. “This makes the body go into overdrive,” Dr. Añel-Tiangco said. Symptoms include heavy sweating like you’ve been exercising, fast heartbeat, unexplained weight loss, anxiety for no particular reason, hand tremors, or diarrhea. It can also be marked by unusual eye symptoms, in which your eyes feel like they are bulging. And the thyroid gland at the base of the neck might feel sore and tender. The most common treatments of hyperthyroidism are radioactive iodine and antithyroid medication. In some cases, surgery is also an option.
Hyperthyroidism is often caused by nodules, or lumps in the thyroid. Another cause is Graves’ disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to overproduce thyroid hormones. It may also be caused by an infection that destroys the thyroid and causes it to release pre-formed thyroid hormones.
Thyroid nodules are more common as people age. Often, they don’t cause any symptoms, and go undetected unless they are spotted on a CT scan of the neck area that’s being done another reason, or a vascular ultrasound screening of arteries in the neck. “Most – up to 90 to 95 percent – are benign. About 5 to 10 percent do turn out to be cancerous,” Dr. Añel-Tiangco said. “Odds are, a lump or nodule in the thyroid is benign, but if it turns out to be cancer it is usually curable.”
While thyroid problems should not go untreated, people might also mistakenly blame the thyroid for vague symptoms, when it really isn’t the cause. The best advice is to get regular checkups, and tell your doctor about any persistent or unusual symptoms. “Thyroid conditions can be easily diagnosed and treated – or ruled out,” Dr. Añel-Tiangco said.