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Could you have thyroid disease and not know?

Often we think of the brain or the heart as the “engine” in our bodies. These organs are critical in keeping us alive and, directly or indirectly, control every single function in our body. While that may be true, a gland in the shape of a butterfly is equally as important and plays a major role in our health.

What Is Your Thyroid And What Does It Do?

Located at the base of the neck, our thyroid is small yet powerful. It may be light like a butterfly, weighing approximately 20 grams, but shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is responsible for our metabolism. (That’s the organic and chemical process that determines how quickly we burn calories or fat.) It regulates all body functions including the heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and other organs. It ensures that all systems are a “go.”

January is Thyroid Awareness Month. This is the perfect time to get to know its purpose and potential problems. According to the American Thyroid Association, an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. And of that population, a whopping 60 percent are unaware of their condition.

What Are The Different Types Of Thyroid Disease?

Thyroid disease is classified into four categories:

  • Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland)
  • Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland)
  • Hashimoto’s (an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid, causing hypothyroidism)
  • Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism)

Although men experience thyroid disease, women are five to eight times more likely to develop problems. It’s not a disease just for seniors, either. Women can develop problems during puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, and perimenopause – especially due to hormonal shifts.

Cancer of the thyroid is less common. When caught early, however, it is treatable and survival rates are high. There are less than 200,000 cases in the United States each year. The cause of thyroid cancer is not clear, but as with most cancers today, it thought that it might involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

How Do You Know If You Have A Thyroid Problem?

So how do you know if your thyroid may be misbehaving? Symptoms vary according the type and can affect everything from your physical to emotional well-being.

Your primary care physician likely checks your thyroid during your annual wellness visit by feeling your neck. In doing so, your doctor looks for changes in size to the gland. (The thyroid will generally get larger if there is a problem.)

If a problem is suspected, he or she also may do blood testing. This looks at chemical messengers known as hormones produced by the thyroid gland and the pituitary gland, a separate gland that regulates the thyroid.

Sometimes, an ultrasound is ordered in order to determine if a mass exists or the gland itself has grown. Discuss your options and any symptoms with your provider to determine the best plan for you.

Hyperthyroidism

When your thyroid is producing too much thyroid hormone, it is considered overactive and result in hyperthyroidism. For most sufferers of this form, it feels like they are on fast forward all day and cannot relax. Symptoms are not the same for everyone. In fact older adults may have none or subtle symptoms. Common warning signs* of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Unintentional weight loss, even when your appetite and food intake stay the same or increase
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) — commonly more than 100 beats a minute
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Pounding of your heart (palpitations)
  • Increased appetite
  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Tremor — usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
  • Sweating
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
  • An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), which may appear as a swelling at the base of your neck
  • Fatigue, muscle weakness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skin thinning
  • Fine, brittle hair

Hypothyroidism

When someone is experiencing hypothyroidism, the opposite is true and they feel slow as the result of an underactive gland. Symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Puffy face
  • Hoarseness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
  • Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
  • Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
  • Thinning hair
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be managed with medical attention and appropriate medical follow up. Left undiagnosed, thyroid disease puts patients at risk for serious conditions such as infertility, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease.

The purpose of this month’s observation and blog entry, however, is not to scare anyone. As mentioned earlier, many are unaware of having thyroid disease or even comprehend the function of the gland.

It’s important to practice preventive care and see your doctor annually for wellness exams. Keep track of any patterns or changes in your health and when in doubt, consult a medical professional.

Ask your primary care provider about your thyroid health. Your provider may refer you to an endocrinologist if you require treatment from a thyroid specialist.

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