Think you have a thyroid disorder? Here's what you need to know
Some of the smallest parts of your body can have the biggest impact on how you feel. Take the thyroid gland – a two-inch-long organ with a lot of power. If it produces the slightest bit too much or too little thyroid hormone, it can alter your weight, the way you feel and your energy level.
Fortunately, thyroid hormone levels can be regulated and treated. But researchers estimate that 13 million Americans are living with an undiagnosed thyroid condition because people often dismiss the symptoms or mistake them for something else. Understanding how thyroid disease affects people and what to look for ensures you’ll get the help you need to feel your best.
What is thyroid disease?
Your thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located in the front of your neck. It produces thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), which control your body’s metabolism (how quickly your body uses energy). When your thyroid gland makes the wrong amount of these hormones, it’s called thyroid disease.
There are two main thyroid disorders:
- Hyperthyroidism: Your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, causing your body to use energy very quickly.
- Hypothyroidism: Your thyroid makes too little thyroid hormone, so your body doesn’t use energy as quickly as it should.
These disorders can be inherited or caused by a variety of conditions, including postpartum thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and irregular levels of iodine.
Who does thyroid disease affect?
Thyroid disease affects men and women of all ages from infants to the elderly. It is very common – about 12% of people experience thyroid disease in their lifetime and more than 20 million Americans are currently living with thyroid problems.
The biggest risk factor for thyroid disease is gender. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease – one out of every eight women will have thyroid problems. Other factors that may put you at higher risk include:
- Age of 60+
- Being pregnant or delivering a baby within the past six months
- Certain autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes or celiac disease
- Family history of thyroid disease
- Previous treatment with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications
- Radiation exposure in the neck or chest area
Signs of a thyroid problem
Symptoms of thyroid disease develop slowly and can take several years to be noticeable. For women over the age of 50, the signs of a thyroid problem are often mistaken for menopause symptoms. Depending on whether your thyroid is overactive or underactive, your symptoms will vary:
When your thyroid is underactive, your body’s metabolism slows. You may feel tired and sluggish, the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism. Other symptoms include:
- Dry, pale skin
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Irregular or heavy menstrual bleeding
- Joint or muscle pain or weakness
- Puffy face
- Unexplained weight gain
An overactive thyroid speeds up some of your body’s functions, like heart rate and metabolism. Signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Changes in menstrual patterns
- Heartbeat that is irregular (arrhythmia), rapid (tachycardia) or pounding (palpitations)
- Increased appetite
- Increased sweating and sensitivity to heat
- Nervousness, anxiety or irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Unexplained weight loss
If you suspect a thyroid disorder…
If you have symptoms of either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, keep a log of what you notice and speak to your provider. To diagnose thyroid disease, doctors use blood tests that measure thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and other hormone levels. The tests help determine whether your thyroid is overactive or underactive.
To identify the best treatment, your provider will also try to find the reason for your thyroid symptoms. Treatment for thyroid disease may include medication, radioactive iodine or surgery.
If you have symptoms of either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, talk to your primary care provider.