Your thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located at the base of your throat. Small as it is, however, the thyroid gland is incredibly important for the rest of your body. It helps your body burn calories to maintain energy and affects the way your body keeps its temperature and can even affect your bone health. That is why thyroid disease can affect so many systems throughout your body.
What is Thyroid Disease?
In general, there are two different types of thyroid disease:
- Hypothyroidism, where your thyroid gland does not make enough of the thyroid hormones that your body needs.
- Hyperthyroidism, where you thyroid gland makes more thyroid hormone than your body needs.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Disease?
The signs and symptoms of thyroid disease depends on the kind of disease that you have:
- If you have hypothyroidism, you can feel tired all the time (even if you are getting enough sleep), you can gain weight easily and find it hard to lose and you are very sensitive to cold weather. You can also get body aches and pains, a slower heart rate and thinning hair.
- If you have hyperthyroidism, you can have problems losing weight even though you are not dieting. You can also be very sensitive to heat or to hot weather and sweat more than is normal. It is common for people with this issue to have problems getting or staying to sleep and as a result they feel tired a lot. It can also cause problems with your eyes (see below in the Complications section for more details).
What Causes Thyroid Disease?
There are many different possible causes of thyroid disease:
- Hypothyroidism can be caused by an autoimmune disease, which means that your own body’s immune system attacks and destroys thyroid tissue. It can also be caused by treatment for hyperthyroidism such as medications or surgery. Some babies can be born with a deformed or malfunctioning thyroid gland. Nutritional problems like not getting enough iodine in the diet can also cause this problem.
- Hyperthyroidism can be caused by other medical conditions such as Grave’s disease, Plummer’s disease (growth on the thyroid gland which also produce thyroid hormones), and thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid).
Who is at Risk for Thyroid Disease?
There are many things that can put you at risk for some type of thyroid disease. Some of them you can control and some of them you can’t:
- Risk factors for hypothyroidism include being female and over 60, having family members who have hypothyroidism, and a history of treatments for hyperthyroidism or of radiation therapy in the neck or chest. Having other autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis can also make it more likely that you will have thyroid problems as well.
- Risk factors for hyperthyroidism include being female and having family members who have hyperthyroidism.
Can Thyroid Disease Cause Complications?
Unfortunately, no matter what kind of thyroid disease that you have, it can cause a variety of complications. Some of them are mild and some are more serious:
- Hypothyroidism can lead to a goiter (which is what happens when your thyroid gets too big), feeling depressed or sad all the time, and a condition called myxedema (this is a life-threatening condition that make you lose consciousness; you will need to be taken to the hospital for more medical treatment).
- Hyperthyroidism can lead to a variety of heart problems (even heart failure), osteoporosis (a disease which makes your bones weak so that they break easily), eye problems (such as bulging, tearing and redness and visual disturbances). Your skin can also become inflamed and irritated. The most serious complication, however, is called a thyrotoxic crisis, where there is a sudden worsening of hyperthyroidism symptoms. You will need to be treated for this condition in the hospital.
How Do You Get Diagnosed with Thyroid Disease?
No matter what kind of thyroid disease you have, your doctor will likely run the same kinds of tests. These will usually include:
- Blood work to test the levels of your thyroid hormones: these are called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) as well as the two other thyroid hormones, called T3 and T4.
- Imaging tests like X-rays to see if there is any problem with the shape or size of the thyroid or if it has growths on it.
- Iodine uptake test, to see how well the thyroid gland is functioning.
How is Thyroid Disease Treated?
The kind of treatment your doctor will prescribe will depend on the kind of thyroid disease you have:
- If you have hypothyroidism, your doctor can prescribe some form of Synthroid. This is an artificial thyroid hormone that mimics the hormones your thyroid gland cannot make itself. However, it can take a while for the doctor to find the dosage that works best for you and you will have to go in regularly to get blood work done to make sure your hormone levels are normal.
- If you have hyperthyroidism, you have the option of taking anti-thyroid medications, destroying some of your thyroid tissue with radioactive iodine or having surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid gland.
In short, thyroid disease can cause a whole variety of symptoms and long-term health issues, depending on the kind of disease you have. However, for the most part, this diseases are treatable, though the treatment may have to be ongoing for the rest of your life, such as is case with using Synthroid to restore thyroid hormone levels. The good news is that you can pretty much lead a normal, healthy life even with these thyroid issues.