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Published on June 10, 2015

Could You Have a Thyroid Disorder?

June 10, 2015

doctor checking woman's neckYou (or your physician) may have chalked up your fatigue, mental sluggishness or anxiety as stress, inadequate sleep or a less-than-ideal diet. But have you been checked for a thyroid disorder?

At least 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disorder, with as many as half of them undiagnosed. Women are as much as 10 times more likely than men to develop some forms of thyroid disease, for reasons that are not well understood.

Thyroid disease can produce an array of profound physical, mental and emotional effects. Because the symptoms of thyroid disorders are similar to those of many other conditions and may develop very gradually, it can be difficult to pinpoint a diagnosis of thyroid disease in the early stages. For many patients, thyroid disease is first discovered while receiving treatment for another serious condition, such as infertility, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease or stroke.

Some women develop thyroid dysfunction during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. For most of these women, thyroid function tends to return to normal by itself within a year or two. Autoimmune disorders, in which the body’s own immune system disrupts normal thyroid functioning, are the most common cause of thyroid imbalance. Exactly why these disorders develop is unknown, but genetics may be a factor. Thyroid nodules, or swellings within the gland, can also contribute to thyroid dysfunction, as can thyroiditis, a temporary inflammation of the thyroid. Usually, thyroid cancer does not produce any symptoms and is not the cause of a thyroid hormone imbalance.

Underactive Thyroid (Hypothyroidism)

When too little thyroid hormone is produced, the body’s functions slow down. Symptoms of hypothyroidism may include weight gain, constipation, fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold temperatures, problems with thinking, concentration or memory, and depression.

Hypothyroidism is most often caused by Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. Restoring thyroid hormone balance may involve surgical removal of all or part of the underactive thyroid and/or replacement of the hormone that is not being produced naturally with synthetic thyroid hormone medication every day.

Overactive Thyroid (Hyperthyroidism)

If thyroid production exceeds normal levels, body processes speed up. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include weight loss despite no change in eating habits, more frequent bowel movements, muscle weakness, increased sensitivity to heat, nervousness or anxiety.

Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.

Left untreated, Grave’s disease can cause complications, including rapid heartbeat, irregular heart rhythm or heart failure. Because elevated thyroid hormone levels interfere with the process of building bones, Grave’s disease can lead to osteoporosis (weak, brittle bones). As many as half of patients also develop thyroid eye disease (Grave’s ophthalmopathy), which may cause protruding eyes, dryness, irritation, light sensitivity, blurred or double vision, and in severe cases, permanent vision loss.

Restoring thyroid hormone balance may involve surgery, destroying thyroid tissue with radioactive iodine (ablation) or anti-thyroid medication (usually taken on a short-term basis). Most patients who opt for surgery or ablation will need to replace thyroid hormones with synthetic supplements for the rest of their lives.

What Is the Thyroid?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ located at the base of the throat, with the “wings” wrapping around either side of the windpipe. The thyroid secretes three hormones: thyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3) and calcitonin. Together, these hormones perform vital functions in every cell of the body and regulate the speed of numerous physical processes, including heart rate and metabolism (energy use).

To confirm a diagnosis of thyroid disease, your physician may order a blood test that measures thyroid hormone levels and checks for the presence of antibodies that signal an autoimmune disorder. Additional tests may be needed to examine the structure and function of the gland. Thyroid nodules may also be tested to rule out the possibility of cancer.

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