Thyroid problems can arise from one of many underlying health conditions. In almost all cases, they cause one of two conditions in patients: hypothyroidism (too little hormone) or hyperthyroidism (too much hormone). Depending on what symptoms you exhibit, your physician will have you undergo additional testing to find out what's causing your thyroid problems and make recommendations for treatment. First, it's important to understand what this little gland does and why it's extremely important to treat thyroid problems with dispatch.
Understanding Your Thyroid
The thyroid is a small gland located in the front of the neck. It's typically described as butterfly-shaped with two "wings" (lobes) extending from a smaller band of tissue known as the isthmus. The thyroid has one job: to regulate the body's metabolism. It does so by taking the iodine in your everyday diet and converting it into thyroid hormone that's dispatched into the blood stream. People with thyroid problems typically take the gland to task for their inability to gain or lose weight, but the thyroid does more than that; among its many duties is to regulate your heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. If the thyroid is impaired, it will either produce too little or too much thyroid hormone, and this can sometimes result in debilitating symptoms.
When the thyroid produces too little hormone, this results in hypothyroidism. Low hormone levels means that the metabolic functions slow down. People with hypothyroidism are sensitive to cold, easy to fatigue, sleep excessively and are often forgetful and depressed. Other physical symptoms include weight gain, constipation and dry, patchy skin. Hypothyroidism results because of autoimmune disorders, such as Hashimoto's Disease, partial or total removal of the thyroid gland due to thyroid cancer or thyroid nodules and postradiation treatment of the thyroid gland.
If your thyroid problems cause too much thyroid hormones to be released into the blood, you'll have a condition known as hyperthyroidism in which the body's metabolism is increased. Those with hyperthyroidism can experience nervousness and anxiety, excessive sweating, rapid heart rate, tremors in the hands, difficulty sleeping, muscle weakness and rapid weight loss. Some women experience lighter menstrual periods or none at all. Hyperthyroidism is usually caused by Graves' Disease but can also be the result of thyroid nodules or thyroiditis.
How Are Thyroid Problems Initially Diagnosed?
To determine if there are problems with your thyroid, your physician will recommend a blood test to measure your levels of TSH, T3 and T4. But what do these letters and numbers mean? The thyroid hormone is comprised of two different hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The amount of thyroid hormone produced is regulated by the pituitary gland, which releases thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). If the pituitary notes that the thyroid gland is not functioning properly, it releases more TSH to give it a gentle nudge. An easy way to determine if there are problems with the thyroid is to measure the TSH level. A high TSH indicates that the thyroid isn't producing enough thyroid hormone, and a low TSH may indicate that the thyroid is overactive.
Treating Thyroid Problems
While many thyroid problems cannot be cured, they can be treated. Patients with hypothyroidism take oral hormone replacements every day to make up for the hormone not being produced. Hyperthyroid patients can be treated with antithyroid medications that block excessive hormone production. Antithyroid medication is the top-line treatment for hyperthyroidism in Europe, Australia and Japan. However, the majority of hyperthyroid patients in the United States undergo radioactive iodine treatment to permanently disable the thyroid--this treatment usually results in hypothyroidism and a new set of thyroid problems that need lifelong treatment. Patients with Graves' Disease or thyroid nodules may also choose to have part of the thyroid surgically removed. Complete surgical removal of the thyroid is always warranted in cases of thyroid cancer.