Can You Spot the Signs of Thyroid Disease? The Symptoms Might Surprise You

Health Conditions

Can You Spot the Signs of Thyroid Disease? The Symptoms Might Surprise You

Ilima Loomis
By Ilima Loomis
Dec 21, 2019
Lady on medical bed getting her thryoid checked with medical device

The thyroid may be a small organ, but it has a big footprint. Thyroid disorders can cause health issues throughout the entire body, from weight gain and cardiovascular problems to thinning hair and depression. With such a wide range of symptoms, many people may have a problem with their thyroid and not realize it.

January is Thyroid Awareness Month, so it’s the perfect time to learn more about this important part of your body and how you can help take care of your thyroid health. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Thyroid?

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the lower, front part of your neck — right below the Adam’s apple. It is responsible for producing and releasing several hormones that regulate your body’s metabolism — the system that helps the body use energy and regulate body temperature, and plays a role in keeping the heart, brain, muscles, and other organs working properly.

There are several thyroid disorders that can affect your health. If you have symptoms of a thyroid disorder, or think your thyroid may not be functioning properly, the first step is to ask your doctor for a thyroid function test. With early diagnosis, treatment can help.

What is Hypothyroidism?

With hypothyroidism, the thyroid does not produce enough hormones. This condition is surprisingly common — it’s estimated that around 10 million Americans have some form of hypothyroidism. But because they may not recognize the symptoms, or they may not experience any symptoms at all in the early stages, many people don’t realize they have this condition.

An underactive thyroid slows down your metabolism. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight gain, muscle pain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, depression, and trouble remembering things. You may also become less able to tolerate cold. Over time, hypothyroidism can lead to complications if it’s not treated, including heart problems, mental health issues, goiter, infertility, nerve damage, and myxedema, which is a life-threatening coma.

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease, which triggers the body’s immune system to attack tissues in the thyroid gland. Thyroid surgery, radiation therapy, or certain medications can also damage the thyroid, or reduce its ability to produce enough hormones. In other cases, if a person is being treated for hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), the body may overcorrect, and end up lowering thyroid hormone production too much, resulting in hypothyroidism.

If your doctor determines you have hypothyroidism, you will probably need a daily synthetic thyroid hormone supplement, which can be taken every day. Once you start treatment, your symptoms will likely start to improve right away.

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What is Hyperthyroidism?

An overactive thyroid can also cause problems. When the thyroid produces too much hormone, it’s caused hyperthyroidism. This speeds up the metabolism, causing symptoms like rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, weight loss, an inability to tolerate heat, and irregular menstrual cycles. It can also cause symptoms that require immediate medical attention, including dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, and atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can be dangerous.

There are several possible causes of hyperthyroidism, but Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common. Other causes can include benign tumors in the thyroid or pituitary gland, inflammation of the thyroid, and consuming too much iodine.

Hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication; radioactive iodine, which destroys the cells that produce thyroid hormones, or surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.

What is a goiter?

Sometimes the thyroid gland becomes swollen and enlarged. When this occurs, it’s called goiter. Goiter is usually not dangerous, and mild cases may not even cause any symptoms. When it’s more severe, goiter can cause swelling in your neck, along with a feeling of tightness; difficulty breathing or swallowing; coughing; and hoarseness.

The most frequent cause of goiter is iodine deficiency, so it’s more common in parts of the world where people have less access to iodine-rich foods. But it can also be caused by hyperthyroidism, so it may be a symptom of other thyroid conditions.

If your doctor determines that you have goiter, and if it’s severe enough that it’s causing uncomfortable symptoms, it can be treated. Depending on the cause, you may be prescribed an iodine supplement to counteract an iodine deficiency. Or your doctor may treat you for hyperthyroidism, with a dose of radioactive iodine, or surgery to remove part of the thyroid.

What is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer usually appears as a lump on the thyroid, often on one side. In some cases, it might be found by accident during a routine physical exam, or when the neck is being scanned for another reason. Other times, as the tumor gets larger, the patient might start to notice the growing lump, which often moves when the person swallows.

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The good news is the vast majority of thyroid cancers grow slowly, are unlikely to spread to other organs, and are highly treatable, so they usually have a very high survival rate. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland, however, which may lead the person to develop hypothyroidism.

If you notice a lump in the lower front part of your neck, talk to your doctor.

Thyroid disorders can be linked with a number of different health concerns, but because the symptoms they cause are so varied, they can sometimes be tricky to spot. By learning to recognize the signs of trouble and getting your thyroid checked, you can get treatment and start to feel better again.

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in writing about health care, HR, science, travel, and Hawaii. You can find more of her work at Ilima is a regular contributor to the RxSaver blog.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

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