January is Thyroid Awareness Month. How often do you think about your thyroid? Why do you even need it and what does it do?
In a nod to the purpose of thyroid “awareness” month, I’ll try to answer some of those questions today and help you know when to be concerned about your thyroid health.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck, just below the Adam’s apple. It produces hormones that regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and rate. The thyroid hormones control metabolism — the process where the food you eat is transformed into energy. When your thyroid makes either too much or too little of these important hormones, it’s called a thyroid disease. When the thyroid makes too much, your body uses energy too quickly, which is called hyperthyroidism. This does more than make you tired, it can make your heart beat faster, cause you to lose weight without trying and make you feel nervous. On the opposite end, if your thyroid makes too little, it is called hypothyroidism and you may feel tired, gain weight or possibly be unable to tolerate cold temperatures.
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be caused by other diseases that impact the way the thyroid gland works, or it can be inherited. You may be at higher risk if you have a family history of thyroid disease, a medical condition such as Type 1 diabetes, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, if you take a medication that’s high in iodine, or are older than 60 years, especially in women.
What to Watch For
Unfortunately, the symptoms of a thyroid condition are often very similar to the signs of other medical issues which can make diagnosis tricky. As I mentioned above, things like nervousness and anxiety, unexplained weight loss or sensitivity to heat are common symptoms of an overactive thyroid. Weight gain, forgetfulness, fatigue, dry and coarse hair or hair loss and intolerance to cold temps are common symptoms of an underactive thyroid. To help determine whether symptoms are thyroid related or simply connected to something like aging or pregnancy, there are blood tests, imaging tests and physical exams that can be conducted.
In many cases, taking a look at the thyroid itself gives the best clues. A thyroid scan or an ultrasound can help check for increased size, shape or growths (nodules) of the thyroid. Your doctor might simply feel your neck for growth or enlargements of the thyroid as well.
Treating Thyroid Disease
If it’s determined your thyroid is producing too much or too little, the goal is to return thyroid hormone levels to normal. This can be done a variety of ways and best method for you will depend on the cause of your thyroid condition. There are medications that stop your thyroid from making hormones or to add thyroid hormones back into your body, beta blockers that help control your symptoms or radioactive iodine that works by damaging the cells of your thyroid to prevent it from making high levels of thyroid hormones. Surgery (thyroidectomy) is a more permanent form of treatment which will prevent the thyroid from creating hormones, but this requires you to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of your life.
A fine needle biopsy may be recommended to look for cancerous tissue if thyroid nodules, or lumps, are found. While lumps are pretty common (nearly half of adults will develop one by age 60), less than 10% of thyroid nodules are cancerous, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. In the unlikely event that the nodule is due to cancer, surgery is the most common treatment and can usually cure it.
Living with Thyroid Disease
People can generally live a normal life with thyroid disease once they find the right treatment option to control hormone levels. Your healthcare provider is an important partner in finding the best solution and monitoring it over time to make adjustments that help you successfully manage the disease.
When your thyroid doesn’t work properly it can impact your entire body. If you’re experiencing symptoms you think could be related to an over or under active thyroid, don’t ignore it. Talk to your healthcare provider.
Dr. Mark Vukonich is a family practitioner at Lake Region Healthcare in Fergus Falls.