The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located below the larynx at the base of the neck, is a critical component of the body’s endocrine system. The thyroid’s primary function is to regulate metabolism through the synthesis and secretion of thyroid hormones T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine).
These hormones control the body’s rate of converting food to energy, which has far-reaching effects on other vital bodily processes. In addition to metabolism, thyroid hormones play a significant role in heart rate, respiration, body temperature, fat accumulation, blood cholesterol levels, and menstrual cycles.
With so many essential roles to play in the body, dysfunctional thyroid conditions can cause a wide range of adverse symptoms, from lethargy to coma. The team at Associated Endocrinologists can provide an overview of what you need to know about thyroid conditions and use state-of-the-art tools and techniques to diagnose and treat your condition.
How Common are Thyroid Conditions?
Thyroid conditions are relatively common in the United States, with the American Thyroid Association estimating that over 12% of the population will develop a thyroid disorder in their lifetime. Overall, the ATA estimates that 20 million Americans suffer from some level of thyroid dysfunction.
As many as 60% of these people are unaware of their condition, largely due to the progressive nature of the most prevalent conditions. Women are five to eight times more likely to be affected by thyroid dysfunction than men.
What are the Most Common Thyroid Conditions?
While a range of diseases and conditions can cause thyroid dysfunction, thyroid disease is typically divided into two main categories: hyperthyroidism, which refers to an overactive thyroid, and hypothyroidism, which refers to an underactive thyroid.
Hyperthyroidism is associated with increased thyroid hormone production, which speeds up metabolism and other bodily processes. While hypothyroidism is associated with a decrease in thyroid hormone production, reducing metabolism and causing bodily processes to slow.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the leading cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. It is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid, impairing its function.
Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, affecting about 0.5% of the population. Like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease is also an autoimmune disorder; the primary difference is that Graves’ disease causes the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormone.
What are the Symptoms Associated with Thyroid Conditions?
Since hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism cause opposite effects, thyroid conditions can cause various symptoms. The most common symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism include the following:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Rapid heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Heart arrhythmia
- Tremor in hands
- Increased appetite
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Thinning hair
- Increased frequency of bowel movements
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
However, the most common symptoms associated with hypothyroidism include the following:
- Dry skin
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Weight gain
- Muscle weakness
- High cholesterol levels
- Puffy face
- Loss of voice
- Tender, stiff, or sore muscles and joints
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Thinning hair
- Lowered heart rate
- Memory issues
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
How are Thyroid Conditions Diagnosed?
The preferred treatment for thyroid problems depends on whether the dysfunctional thyroid is over or underactive. For both types of disorders, the first step in treatment is diagnosis.
To diagnose thyroid disease, your doctor will begin with a physical exam. The exam includes an overall checkup on vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Often, the doctor asks you to stretch out your arm and hand to detect tremors. They will also examine the eyes and skin for changes and check for overactive reflexes. Finally, the doctor will palpate the thyroid gland for inflammation or tenderness.
If the initial evaluation shows signs of thyroid issues, your doctor will order a blood test to measure the level of thyroxine (T4) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in the blood.
If thyroxine levels are elevated but TSH levels are low, the thyroid is likely overactive. A low thyroxine level and a high TSH level indicate hypothyroidism.
Once blood tests confirm thyroid dysfunction, your doctor must determine the cause of the thyroid issues. To do this, they may use one of the following tests:
Radioiodine Reuptake Test
This test involves the oral consumption of radioactive iodine. The doctor will check your thyroid after several hours to see how much iodine has been absorbed by the thyroid. If there is a high level of uptake, the thyroid gland is likely producing excess T4. Typically, this means the dysfunction is caused by Graves’ disease or hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules. On the other hand, if uptake is low, it may indicate thyroiditis.
During a thyroid scan, a radioactive isotope is injected intravenously. A camera will then produce an image of your thyroid, showing how iodine is collecting in the gland.
If your doctor believes that you may be developing thyroid cancer or that a thyroid nodule is causing your symptoms, they may order a thyroid ultrasound test to examine any nodules present on the gland.
How are Thyroid Conditions Treated?
Once a diagnosis is achieved, your doctor will likely proceed with treatment.
Treating hypothyroidism is more straightforward than hyperthyroidism and usually involves daily oral consumption of synthetic thyroid hormones. Usually, this hormone is levothyroxine. Once treated, most patients see a dramatic reduction in symptoms; however, treatment must continue throughout the remainder of the patient’s life.
Unlike hypothyroidism, there are several possible treatment methods for hyperthyroidism. Your doctor will consider your age, condition, and the cause of your hyperthyroidism to determine the best option for you.
One of the most effective treatments is radioactive iodine treatment. This method involves the oral consumption of radioactive iodine, which is absorbed by the thyroid and shrinks it. Since radioactive iodine damages the thyroid and reduces (or eliminates) the production of thyroid hormones, the patient may have to take levothyroxine after this treatment.
Another common type of hyperthyroidism treatment is anti-thyroid medications, such as methimazole or propylthiouracil. These medications reduce the amount of thyroid hormone that is produced by the thyroid. Typically, this treatment lasts for several months but can permanently treat the issue in some cases; however, the treatment also carries the risk of liver damage.
Beta-blockers are also commonly used in patients with hyperthyroidism. While these drugs do not treat hyperthyroidism, they reduce symptoms and are often used in conjunction with other treatments.
In rare cases (such as pregnancy or an aversion to anti-thyroid drugs), the thyroid may need to be removed via thyroidectomy. Patients who undergo this surgery will need supplemental levothyroxine.
Thyroid Treatment at Associated Endocrinologists
If you suspect you may have a dysfunctional thyroid, it is important to see a doctor. Since thyroid issues often begin mildly before degenerating, early treatment can significantly improve your quality of life.
When you seek a doctor for your thyroid issues, choosing one with experience treating a range of thyroid issues is vital. The doctors at Associated Endocrinologists have been treating patients with all types of thyroid issues since 1984 and have won awards from multiple endocrine societies, like the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
Each of our doctors has an area of particular expertise, allowing all thyroid patients to get the treatment they need. Call Associated Endocrinologists at (248) 206-3234 today and schedule an initial consultation if you have a thyroid disorder.