Thyroid Disorders

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck, just below your Adam's apple. Although it weighs less than an ounce, the thyroid gland has an enormous impact on your health. Every aspect of your metabolism, from your heart rate to how quickly you burn calories, is regulated by thyroid hormones. You cannot live without your thyroid gland or the thyroid hormone, thyroxine.

As long as your thyroid releases the proper amounts of these hormones, your system functions normally.

Common Disorders - Facts You Should Know

Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid disease) occurs when your thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. Hyperthyroidism can significantly accelerate your body's metabolism, causing sudden weight loss, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, sweating, and nervousness or irritability.

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid disease) occurs when your thyroid doesn't produce enough hormones, upsetting the balance of chemical reactions in your body. Women, especially those older than 50, are more likely to have hypothyroidism than men are. Hypothyroidism seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, but over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.

Symptoms of Abnormal Thyroid Function

Thyroid nodules are a result of normal thyroid tissue growing, causing one or more nodules to develop within the gland. The great majority of these solid or fluid-filled lumps are noncancerous (benign) and don't cause any symptoms. In fact, you often won't know you have a nodule until your doctor discovers it during a routine medical exam. Some nodules, however, may become large enough to press on your windpipe or your esophagus, making it uncomfortable or difficult to swallow. About 5 percent of nodules may be cancerous (malignant).

Goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland. There are numerous possible causes for the development of goiters. Historically the most common cause used to be due to a lack of iodide in the diet, however in the 1920's iodized salt was introduced in the United States now making this a rare cause of goiters. Although generally not uncomfortable, goiters can interfere with swallowing or breathing.

Thyroid cancer typically presents itself in a nodule. The prognosis is often excellent for a cancerous thyroid nodule. The most common types of thyroid cancer can often be completely removed with surgery. Of the 13 million Americans that have thyroid disorder, over half (8 million) don't realize it. More than 8 out of 10 patients with thyroid disease are women. 15 to 20 percent of people with diabetes and their siblings or parents are likely to develop thyroid disease (compared to 4.5 percent of the general population). Nearly 1 out of every 50 women who become pregnant in the U.S. is diagnosed with hypothyroidism underactive thyroid) during pregnancy. The incidence of hypothyroidism increases with age. By age 60, as many as 17 percent of women and 9 percent of men have an underactive thyroid. Research shows that there is a strong genetic link between thyroid disease and other autoimmune diseases including certain types of diabetes, anemia and arthritis. Most thyroid cancers are completely curable and all are treatable to some extent.

Checking for Thyroid Disease

The TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test is a simple blood test that measures the appropriateness of the thyroid gland’s hormone production. This test will typically provide the information needed to determine how your thyroid is functioning.
In cases of nodules, a standard physical examination of the thyroid gland is done by palpation – that is, feeling the thyroid gland. The doctor feels for the size and texture of the gland, and whether any masses or nodules are present. If a nodule is present, and in the case of goiters, a thyroid scan, thyroid function test, biopsy or ultrasonography may be used to determine whether it is benign or malignant.

If cancer has been determined, you're likely to have tests to help determine whether the cancer has spread - this process is known as staging. The staging tests will vary based upon the type of thyroid cancer that is diagnosed.

Symptoms of abnormal Thyroid function
Too Little Thyroid Hormone (Hypothyroidism)

  • Depression or feeling blue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Tiredness
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Weight gain
  • Feeling cold all the time

Too Much Thyroid Hormone (Hyperthyroidism)

  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Tremor (shaking)
  • Fast, irregular pulse
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling hot all the time