Hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland produces a below-normal amount of the thyroid hormone, can be difficult to diagnose and devastating when left untreated. This condition has a significant impact on the entire body, as the thyroid regulates critical mechanisms such as metabolism, heart and cholesterol levels by keeping the body in a healthy and balanced state. When hypothyroidism goes untreated, it can severely degrade a person's quality of life and cause unnecessary suffering.
A person may develop hypothyroidism but not be aware of it, as the symptoms can be subtle. Since the condition is progressive, and the human body has an amazing ability to adapt, it can take years before it is obvious that something is not right. The symptoms also are common to other less-serious conditions such as overwork, poor eating habits and a person's general lifestyle. Some of these symptoms are fatigue, constipation, weight gain, stiff and cramped muscles, appetite loss, inability to concentrate and inability to tolerate cold. Dry skin, changes in nail appearance and sometimes hair loss are also common.
As hypothyroidism progresses, symptoms become worse and more frequent. As the body struggles to adjust to the lower levels of thyroid hormones, additional symptoms and conditions begin to develop. The thyroid hormone plays a large role in the heart's rate and output, as it helps with blood flow by relaxing blood vessel’s smooth muscles which ensures that blood flows easily. The heart rate can slow to below normal levels, as it is not able to pump as efficiently. Blood vessel walls become stiff, and blood pressure rises. Hypertension is a significant risk of untreated hypothyroidism.
The thyroid’s hormone production is regulated by the pituitary gland and the brain. It's not uncommon to begin to experience signs of depression. Even very early stages of hypothyroidism increase the risk of depression. Dementia can result when hypothyroidism is untreated over longer periods of time, making it more difficult to concentrate and to recall past events.
When thyroid hormone levels remain below normal for extended periods, ovulation function can be affected, as menstrual cycles become irregular. Pregnant women with hypothyroidism are at high risk of miscarriage, and the development of the fetus can be at risk. Birth defects are more likely and children born to mothers with hypothyroidism may have developmental and intellectual challenges.
Children who develop hypothyroidism over the age of 2, grow at a slower physical rate and new teeth come in later than normal. Children can show signs of hyperactivity and problems with attentiveness. Untreated hypothyroidism can delay a child's normal physical and mental development well into adulthood. Children who are born with hypothyroidism often show lower IQ points during the first months of life. If hypothyroidism is treated early, the chances of normal mental development are better.
Iodine is necessary to the normal function of the thyroid gland. If the body is deficient in iodine, the thyroid gland will begin trying to pull in iodine from other places in the body. As it does so, the thyroid gland may grow larger and cause goiter. The presence of a goiter is a condition known as Hashimoto thyroiditis. This condition is not painful, but is physically noticeable and can make it difficult to swallow or can affect breathing.
Miscellaneous conditions, which can be difficult to diagnose, have also been associated with hypothyroidism. These are anemia due to low levels of iron in the blood, glaucoma, an increase in the severity of headaches, and problems with the respiratory tract and kidney function. One rare but emergency condition that can result is myxedema coma, which has symptoms of hypothermia, urine retention and seizures, among others.