Know the Signs: Thyroid Disorders

Find out the warning signs, symptoms, and tips to keep your thyroid healthy.

Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The thyroid gland releases hormones that regulate your body’s metabolism. If your thyroid doesn’t work properly – if it produces too much or too little thyroid hormones – many important body functions can get out of whack. We spoke with endocrinologist Javaid Wani, MD, of Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, to learn the warning signs of thyroid disorders.

Warning Signs

When the thyroid releases too little thyroid hormones, called hypothyroidism, many important bodily functions slow down, including your heart rate and digestion. Symptoms of hypothyroidism usually develop gradually and can be subtle. They may include:

  • Feeling tired, sluggish and weak
  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Joint or muscle pain and weakness
  • Dry skin and hair loss
  • Frequent, heavier periods

Sometimes your body releases too much thyroid hormone. “When there is an excessive production of thyroid hormone, the condition is called hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid,” says Dr. Wani. This causes your body’s functions to speed up, which can make you jittery, irritable, and anxious. Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Rapid heartbeat and chest pain
  • Excessive sweating and sensitivity to heat
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Diarrhea
  • Missed or light periods
  • Protruding eyes

Severe hyperthyroidism, particularly in older people, can cause heart rhythm disorders and if left untreated, can result in major damage to the heart muscle, possibly even congestive heart failure, says Dr. Wani.

Another sign that something may be wrong with your thyroid is if you, or your doctor during a routine exam, find a lump on your neck in the area of the thyroid. These growths, called thyroid nodules, are usually benign (harmless) but sometimes they can be a sign of, or turn into, thyroid cancer. According to Dr. Wani, thyroid nodules can also cause thyroid dysfunction.

If your neck appears swollen or enlarged, you may have a goiter, typically caused by iodine deficiency. Goiters are extremely rare in the United States, says Dr. Wani, since iodine-rich food is readily available.  When goiters do occur in the US, they’re typically due to something else, such as Hashimoto’s disease, Grave’s disease, or nodules.

Thyroid Self-Check

Approximately 15 million Americans have an undiagnosed thyroid problem. As with most conditions, the sooner you catch and treat it, the better. Therefore, it’s a good idea to do a thyroid self-check periodically. All you need is a handheld mirror and a glass of water. Follow these steps:

  1. Hold the mirror in your hand, focusing on the lower front area of your neck, just above your collarbones.
  2. Lean your head back – but not so much that you can’t see the mirror.
  3. Take a drink of water. As you swallow, check your thyroid area for any unusual bulges or protrusions. Touch the area on your neck, feeling for any lumps.
  4. Repeat the steps a few times to get a good look.

When to See the Doctor

If you see anything suspicious during your thyroid self-check or if you have symptoms suggestive of a thyroid disorder, see your doctor. Most thyroid disorders can be diagnosed with blood tests and ultrasound. If your doctor suspects thyroid cancer, a biopsy will be performed to confirm his or her suspicion.

Keep Your Thyroid Healthy

While some thyroid disorders are caused by autoimmune problems or genetics, things you can’t really control, there are steps you can take to promote a healthy thyroid.

  • Don’t smoke. Chemicals in cigarettes can increase the risk of Grave’s disease, a condition linked to hyperthyroidism.
  • Do a thyroid self-check once every two months.
  • Get a blood test. If you have a family history of thyroid disease, are over the age of 60, take certain medications (lithium or amiodarone), have undergone radiation therapy to the head or neck, or have symptoms associated with a thyroid disease, ask your doctor if you should get a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test. It’s a simple blood test that can determine if your thyroid is functioning normally.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. According to Dr. Wani, obesity may indirectly cause hypothyroidism. That’s because your body can only produce so much thyroid hormones. If you are significantly overweight, your body may not be able to produce enough thyroid hormones to meet its needs.

One thing you shouldn’t do for a healthy thyroid is take supplements that claim to benefit the thyroid. “There isn’t enough evidence that any dietary supplement can help your thyroid,” says Dr. Wani. In fact, some supplements can harm you. Many supplements contain dangerously high levels of iodine that can lead to hyperthyroidism, he says. Iodine deficiency is a major cause of goiter in underdeveloped countries. “In America, we get enough iodine in our diet to support a healthy thyroid,” says Dr. Wani.  Even if you’re on a restricted diet, you still get enough, he says.

A thyroid disorder can make you miserable and very sick, if left untreated. But most can be fairly easy to treat by an endocrinologist or your primary care provider, in some cases. You may have to take medicine for the rest of your life, but it shouldn’t prevent you from living a healthy, normal life.

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