Rebecca J. Stahl, MA
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland covering the windpipe in your neck. It is part of the endocrine system, a network of glands which regulate tissue and organ function by secreting hormones into the bloodstream. The thyroid gland regulates metabolism, and growth and development with thyroid hormones (T4, T3). Thyroid hormones regulate cell metabolism (energy production), which affects nearly every organ and cell in the body.
When the thyroid gland produces less hormones than the body needs, the result is
hypothyroidism. When more hormones are produced than necessary, the result is
hyperthyroidism. Timely detection and proper treatment of these conditions allows people to lead normal, active lives. Left untreated, serious negative health effects can result.
What clues should you be looking for? If you have any of the following symptoms, or you suspect there is a problem with your thyroid, contact your doctor.
When the thyroid is not producing enough hormones, body systems are slowed. Hypothyroidism may cause:
Complications of untreated hypothyroidism may include:
When the thyroid produces too many hormones, body systems are sped up. Hyperthyroidism may cause:
Complications of untreated hyperthyroidism include:
There are subclinical versions of these thyroid conditions. This occurs when you do not have symptoms, but abnormalities show up in routine blood tests.
Subclinical hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are associated with increased risk of heart-related health conditions. It is generally recommended that subclinical thyroid disorders be treated, although there is some controversy. Your doctor may suggest a wait and see approach before deciding on a course of action.
If you have any of the above symptoms or have risk factors for developing a thyroid disease, talk to your doctor. Tests can be ordered that will assess how your thyroid is functioning.
For example, the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test may be done. TSH, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, triggers the thyroid gland to make more thyroid hormone. The level of TSH in your body provide a good indicator of how your thyroid is working. If you have a higher-than-normal level, this may mean that you have hypothyroidism. Conversely, a lower-than-normal level may indicate hyperthyroidism. The amounts of thyroid hormones T4 and T3 can also be checked.
A thyroid antibody test can also be ordered. If your body identifies the thyroid as foreign, antibodies are created to attack it. This attack can lead to damage and an increase in the production of thyroid hormones. Depending on which antibodies are present, your doctor can determine the type of thyroid disease you have.
If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, normal thyroid levels may be attained by supplementing the body's hormone with a synthetic hormone medication. This medication is available in tablets and must be taken daily for life. The dosage prescribed by a doctor is carefully and gradually adjusted until a normal TSH level has been achieved. The TSH test will have to be repeated to make sure that the dosage continues to be appropriate.
Taking too much of this medication can cause you to have the hyperthyroidism, so it is important that you work closely with your doctor to keep TSH at the right level.
If you are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, the treatment is more complex and can include antithyroid drug therapy, beta-blockers, and radioactive iodine treatment. In some cases,
may be done, which involves removing the thyroid gland.
Remember, if you are experiencing symptoms or have a family history of thyroid disease, do not be afraid to ask your doctor to do a diagnostic test. Timely detection and treatment of a thyroid disorder can greatly enhance your quality of life—for the rest of your life.
American Thyroid Association
Hormone Health Network—Endocrine Society
Public Health Agency of Canada
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Last reviewed April 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
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