The way we process nutrients to produce the energy we need depends largely on a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck – the thyroid. This gland makes thyroid hormones. These, in turn, help control your metabolism, which covers essential processes that include breathing, blood circulation and temperature regulation.
When it’s functioning correctly, the thyroid receives scant attention. It only draws a spotlight if it’s not working properly – something that 1 in 8 women will experience at some point, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA).
If the thyroid over – or underproduces hormones, it can throw your health for a loop. Hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) and hypothyroidism (not enough) are far more common among women. The ATA reports that women’s risk for thyroid disease is five to eight times higher than men’s risk.
You’re more likely to develop thyroid disease if you’ve had a problem with the gland before. Other risk factors include:
- Goiter (an enlarged thyroid)
- Radiation therapy to the neck
- Thyroid surgery
- Type 1 diabetes
Without treatment, thyroid disease can contribute to other health conditions.
“While untreated hypothyroidism is primarily understood to increase the risk of heart disease and heart failure, and raise LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, it can also lead to a wide variety of ancillary problems,” said Sarah Brooks, FNP-C, certified nurse practitioner at Archbold’s Pelham Primary Care. “These include higher risk for depression, peripheral neuropathy, infertility and birth defects.”
Untreated hypothyroidism can increase your risk for atrial fibrillation – the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, osteoporosis, and fertility and pregnancy problems.
Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore
Many thyroid disease symptoms are connected to its metabolic effects. For example, hypothyroidism slows your metabolism, which can leave you feeling tired. On the other hand, if you have hyperthyroidism, your metabolism is faster than normal, which may lead to overeating or a rapid heartbeat.
Additional signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Dry skin
- Heavier menstrual bleeding
- Muscle weakness
- Reduced sweating
- Slow heart rate
- Thinning hair
- Weight gain
In addition to a faster heartbeat and excessive eating, hyperthyroidism can cause:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Eye bulging or irritation
- Increased sweating
- Lighter-than-normal periods
- Muscle weakness
- Trembling in the hands and fingers
- Weight loss
“See your primary care provider (PCP) if you develop an elevated heart rate, swelling in the neck, unusual sweating, unexplained or increasing fatigue, pale or dry skin, or weight gain,” Brooks said. “The longer you ignore these symptoms, the longer it may take to get the thyroid condition under control.”
Diagnosing and Treating Thyroid Troubles
Your PCP will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and medical history. Blood tests can check your levels of thyroid-stimulation hormone – a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that helps balance thyroid hormones. They can also measure thyroxine, one of the main thyroid hormones. Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, can also help with a diagnosis.
If you have hypothyroidism, you’ll need to take a medication that replaces your missing thyroid hormone with a synthetic version. Several treatments are available for hyperthyroidism, including:
- Antithyroid medications to reduce thyroid hormone production
- Beta-blockers to treat symptoms, such as trembling hands and rapid heartbeat
- Radioiodine therapy to diminish the thyroid’s ability to make thyroid hormones
Thyroid surgery is rarely necessary, but it may be appropriate in some situations – for example, if you’re pregnant and can’t take antithyroid medication, according to the National Library of Medicine.
“There are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of thyroid disease,” Brooks said. “These include quitting smoking, seeing your PCP for regular checkups and, when undergoing X-rays, using proper protection against radiation exposure.”
If you have symptoms of a potential thyroid problem, your PCP can help determine what’s causing them and recommend treatment. Don’t have a PCP? Find one by visiting archbold.org/providers.