January is Thyroid Awareness Month, and a great time to raise awareness about one of the smallest – but one of the most interesting – organs in the human body.
The thyroid gland is crucial to an individual’s overall well-being. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck just above the collarbone – not to be confused with the Adam’s apple.
The thyroid’s job is to make thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the blood and then carried to every tissue in the body. Thyroid hormone helps the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should, according to the American Thyroid Association.
How common are thyroid problems?
It is estimated about 20 million Americans are affected with some form of thyroid disease, with far more women than men being affected, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, only about half of the cases are diagnosed. The two main types of thyroid disease are when the gland is overactive (hyperthyroidism) and underactive (hypothyroidism).
What is an overactive thyroid?
If the thyroid is producing too much hormone, a person may be affected by symptoms including: having a fast or irregular heartbeat; irritability and feeling overheated; trouble sleeping; sweating; trembling hands and muscle weakness; loose and frequent bowel movements; changes in menstrual patterns and fatigue.
If untreated, this condition can lead to: heart and eye problems; brittle bones; and red, swollen skin. A common treatment method is to have the patient swallow a capsule with radioactive iodine. This shrinks or eliminates the thyroid gland, but the patient can compensate by taking thyroid hormone pills, if necessary, to achieve a proper level. There are other medications just to slow the thyroid down. In rare cases, surgery is necessary to remove the gland.
What is an underactive thyroid?
If the thyroid is producing too little hormone, a person may experience: feeling cold, tired, or depressed; unexplained weight gain; constipation or unusually heavy menstrual periods; muscle aches or joint pain; a hoarse voice; dry skin; or a pale, puffy face.
If untreated, it can lead to: an enlarged thyroid (goiter); high cholesterol; heart disease; obesity; joint pain; infertility; and depression.
How are thyroid problems diagnosed?
Fortunately, the disease can be diagnosed with a simple blood test and in most cases is easily treated with medications.
After diagnosis through a blood test, hypothyroidism can be treated with oral medication, most often levothyroxine (synthetic thyroid hormone), to normalize thyroid hormone levels. This corrects the abnormal signs, symptoms and lab test abnormalities that can accompany hypothyroidism.
What can be tricky about diagnosing thyroid disease?
Given thyroid disease’s wide range of symptoms, some of which can be very subtle, it often goes misdiagnosed. When talking to a health care provider, it is important for a patient not to focus on only one or two symptoms, but try to provide information about all of their concerns and everything that seems different or out of the ordinary with their health.
There are no standard guidelines on routine thyroid checks, but if a patient has any of the symptoms, particularly a cluster of symptoms, they should call their primary care provider’s office today.
What is thyroid cancer?
While thyroid cancer is not particularly common in the United States, rates seem to be increasing. This may be due to the fact that with new technology, today we are able to find cancers that are very small and may not have been found in the past, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most cases of thyroid cancer can be cured with treatment.
According to the New York State Department of Health, upwards of 800 men and 2,600 women in the state are diagnosed with thyroid cancer every year. Sadly, every year about 100 people in New York die of thyroid cancer.
If someone has questions, who should they ask?
If someone has questions, or is presenting multiple symptoms associated with thyroid disease, they should start by asking their primary care doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner. You can also click here to make an appointment at St. Peter’s Diabetes & Endocrine Care.