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Thyroid disorders are among the most commonly searched medical conditions. In fact, if you Google the phrase “symptoms of a thyroid problem,” the search engine will give you literally millions of results. That’s a lot of information to sort through – much of which could be inaccurate.
But there’s good reason many people are interested. After all, thyroid disorders affect about 20 million Americans. As an endocrinologist, I work with many patients that have been diagnosed with a thyroid issue. Here are answers to some of the common questions I hear from both patients and their family members:
What is the thyroid and what does it do?
The thyroid gland is a bowtie-shaped organ in your neck, below the larynx. It makes hormones that control how fast your heart beats, how quickly you digest food, how much you sweat, the speed at which you burn calories, and many other important body functions like growth and fertility.
What causes thyroid disorders?
The cause of thyroid disorders – and why they strike women five to eight times more often than men – isn’t clear. Experts agree there are links to family history and other autoimmune disorders, such as lupus. Thyroid deficiencies also rise with age. After age 60, about one in five women have low thyroid hormone.
What are symptoms of thyroid problems?
Thyroid issues can be difficult to spot at first since many of the symptoms are also indicative of other health conditions. The symptoms of thyroid dysfunction can also vary in severity from person to person.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) include:
The most common type of hyperthyroidism is called Graves' disease. Graves' disease is an autoimmune condition, in which the body’s own antibodies cause the thyroid to make more hormone than it should.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) include:
How are thyroid problems diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism by testing the levels of thyroid hormones in your blood. That’s why it is important to see your physician regularly and talk to them about any unusual symptoms, including those listed here, that you are experiencing.
What are the treatment options?
While thyroid issues are life-long conditions, they can be successfully managed. Regardless of what type of thyroid disorder you have, the treatment goal is to restore normal blood levels of thyroid hormone.
An underactive thyroid usually is treated with a daily thyroid hormone medication. An overactive thyroid is usually treated with medication that blocks the thyroid's ability to produce excess hormone or by treatment with radioactive iodine, which will destroy the thyroid tissue. An overactive thyroid also may be treated by surgery. In each of these cases – ablation or surgery – the patient will usually take a daily thyroid hormone replacement pill.