The thyroid, a small butterfly-shaped gland situated just below the larynx at the bottom of the neck, plays a vital role in many bodily processes as a key part of the endocrine system. The thyroid is responsible for producing hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine) to regulate the body’s metabolism. Through this mechanism, thyroid hormones affect every cell in the body.
However, not everyone’s thyroid functions correctly: the American Thyroid Association estimates that 20 million Americans suffer from thyroid dysfunction, and up to 60% of these people are unaware of their condition. Since the thyroid has wide-ranging effects on the body, dysfunction can present itself in various ways.
Often, symptoms can be overlooked in the early stages of thyroid disease, causing the dysfunction to worsen with time. Left untreated, a dysfunctional thyroid can significantly reduce the patient’s quality of life and cause severe and life-threatening complications, such as coma or death.
To prevent this, it is crucial to identify the early warning signs of a thyroid problem and seek thyroid treatment from a qualified endocrinologist as soon as they appear.
Common Thyroid Issues
There are two types of thyroid disease, hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) and hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid). When a patient has an overactive thyroid, it produces too much thyroid hormone, which causes the body’s metabolism to increase considerably. The effects associated with this condition include things like weight loss and a high resting heart rate. Hyperthyroidism affects approximately 1 in 100 people in the United States.
Patients with an underactive thyroid produce too little thyroid hormone, causing their metabolism to slow significantly. This manifests as symptoms such as lethargy and weight gain. Hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism, with about 1 in 20 Americans suffering from the condition.
One of the key signs that a patient is developing hypothyroidism is fatigue; however, the fatigue associated with hypothyroidism is different from the fatigue experienced on an everyday basis. Patients with an underactive thyroid often report an overwhelming feeling of tiredness that remains even with adequate sleep.
Beyond physical tiredness, many hypothyroidism patients also report mental fatigue and forgetfulness. This symptom is often the first to surface in hypothyroidism patients.
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism lead to fluctuations in the patient’s weight. Since thyroid hormones play a vital role in regulating metabolism, unusual levels of the hormones cause the body to convert food to energy at different rates.
When a patient is suffering from an overactive thyroid, the excess levels of thyroid hormones produced by the thyroid cause the body to convert food to energy at a faster-than-usual rate. As a result, patients often lose weight (often in significant amounts) without changing their regular diet or exercise routine.
With an underactive thyroid, this process is essentially reversed. With too little thyroid hormone circulating in the body, the metabolism slows, and the body converts food to energy at a slower rate. Consequently, patients with hypothyroidism often gain weight rapidly without altering their diet.
Vision and Eye Problems
Another common warning sign of thyroid issues is problems with vision or the eyes. This symptom can present in both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism patients, though it is slightly more common in patients with an underactive thyroid.
While hypothyroidism does not directly affect the eyes, some conditions that cause hypothyroidism do. For example, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, one of the leading causes of hypothyroidism, can cause eye problems. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the thyroid.
Since thyroid hormones assist in the proper functioning of the tear ducts, patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are more prone to dry eyes and blurry vision than the rest of the population.
Similarly, hyperthyroidism does not directly affect the eyes; however, certain conditions that cause an overactive thyroid, such as Graves’ disease (another autoimmune disorder that is the leading cause of hyperthyroidism), can cause eye problems.
Approximately one-third of all Graves’ disease patients also suffer from a related condition called Graves’ Ophthalmology, which causes blurred or double vision, red or bulging eyes, and dry, sensitive eyes. If caught early and while still mild, these effects can often be reversed with hyperthyroidism treatments.
Often, patients with hypothyroidism report stomach and digestive issues in conjunction with other symptoms. With too little thyroid hormone, patients with an underactive thyroid are at risk of an overgrowth or imbalance of the bacteria in the digestive system.
This can cause a condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), found in over half of all hypothyroidism patients. SIBO can lead to symptoms such as a lost appetite, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating.
Sensitivity to Temperature
One of the thyroid’s many functions is regulating internal body temperature. When thyroid dysfunction causes irregularities in the production of thyroid hormones, the patient’s sense of temperature can be altered.
In patients with hypothyroidism, the lower levels of thyroid hormones can lead to an unusual perception of cold. This sensation can occur even when the ambient temperature is warm.
Conversely, patients with elevated levels of thyroid hormones often experience a sensation of warmth regardless of their environment.
Changes in Skin and Hair
Another common symptom of thyroid dysfunction is changes to the skin and hair. This is because skin cells, like most other cells, are regulated by thyroid hormones. In particular, thyroid hormones control the skin cell turnover rate or the time it takes for the skin to regenerate.
In patients with hypothyroidism, this most commonly manifests as dry skin: a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that 74% of participants with an underactive thyroid also had dry skin. While this does not occur as commonly in patients with hyperthyroidism, the increased body temperature associated with excess thyroid hormone levels can lead to increased perspiration or night sweats.
Changes in the hair are commonly reported in patients with thyroid issues, particularly those with hypothyroidism. Thyroid hormones play a role in the growth of new hair; with low levels of thyroid hormones, the body’s growth of new hair is impaired.
Since we lose hair every day (typically up to 100 strands), even under normal conditions, the impaired hair growth associated with hypothyroidism can lead to the thinning or loss of hair.
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can cause sleep issues. In patients with hyperthyroidism, the nervousness and arousal associated with the condition can prevent patients from falling asleep normally. Increased perspiration caused by the condition can lead to night sweats, waking the patient during the night.
While hypothyroidism is commonly associated with lethargy and a desire for sleep, studies have linked an underactive thyroid to poor sleep quality, shorter sleep duration, and longer sleep onset.
Thyroid Treatment at Associated Endocrinologists
Thyroid disorders, whether hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, can cause undesirable symptoms and drastically decrease the patient’s quality of life. Thyroid disease will progressively worsen if it is left untreated. So, it is vital to see a doctor immediately when one of the early warning signs of thyroid disease presents itself.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a thyroid disorder, call Associated Endocrinologists today at (248) 855-5620 and have one of our experienced thyroid experts perform a physical exam and blood test to assess your thyroid for dysfunction.
If caught early, most patients with thyroid disease can live healthy and normal lives with the help of thyroid treatment. Our doctors offer cutting-edge diagnosis and treatment options, like thyroid radiofrequency ablation and radioactive iodine treatment, so you can rest assured that you will receive optimal treatment for your thyroid issues.