Thyroid Problems: More Common Than You Think!
By: Silvia DiPaola, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Eve Nevelos, Editor-in-Chief
The thyroid is an important gland in the body that regulates almost all of one’s metabolic processes; It helps to stimulate almost every tissue in the body to produce proteins, and it increases the amount of oxygen that cells take in. Thyroid hormone levels in the body will affect one’s heart rate, the burning of calories, skin maintenance, fertility, and digestion. Issues with the thyroid are becoming more common every year, and they seem to strike women more often than men. Some thyroid issues include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and various types of cancers. This article will speak about these thyroid problems and their symptoms.
Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid doesn't produce enough of the crucial hormones your body needs to regulate its necessary functions. 4.6% (5 out of 100 individuals) of the U.S. population aged 12 and older has hypothyroidism, although most cases of it are mild. This condition can cause one to have low energy levels because the body requires a minimum amount of hormone to function at its optimal capacity. Causes of hyperthyroidism include Hashimoto’s Disease and removal of the thyroid gland. Hashimoto’s Disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid, causing its tissue to eventually die off. This and/or removal of the thyroid gland will cause low levels of thyroid hormones in the body. This condition poses a challenge to newborns and infants, as a lack of thyroid hormone can stunt growth and cause intellectual disabilities early on in life. In adolescents, it can cause poor growth, short stature, delayed development of permanent teeth and delayed puberty if left untreated. It can also cause fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin, and weight gain. However, hypothyroidism can be easily diagnosed with a blood test, which looks for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Treatments include taking medication with the synthetic thyroid hormone, called levothyroxine, for the rest of one’s life. However, individuals with hypothyroidism can live long, healthy, and relatively normal lives.
Hyperthyroidism is a condition wherein the body produces an excess of thyroid hormones. Approximately 1.2% of people in the U.S. have hyperthyroidism. Common causes of this most often include Graves’ disease and/or growths in the thyroid gland. When one has Graves’ disease, their body will attack their thyroid and cause it to become hyperactive, and so it will overproduce the necessary hormones. This disease is more common in women than men, and it is easily treatable with medications. Growths in the thyroid can also cause the thyroid to secrete too many hormones, but this is a more rare cause. Hyperthyroidism, in general, can accelerate your body's metabolism, which can cause unintentional weight loss and/or an irregular heartbeat. Other symptoms may include increased appetite, nervousness, tremors in the hands/fingers, difficulty sleeping, sweating, and/or changes in menstrual patterns. Similar to hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism can be diagnosed with a blood test that looks for TSH levels. Treatments for hyperthyroidism will depend based on the individual, but they most often include anti-thyroid medications, radioactive iodine to slow the production of thyroid hormones, and surgery in more serious cases. Surgery might involve removing some parts of the thyroid or it as a whole. Hyperthyroidism can become serious if left untreated, but most individuals will respond well to treatments once they begin.
Lastly, cancers in the thyroid are conditions to be aware of. However, they are not usually serious, and they are actually quite rare; thyroid cancer only occurs in about 5% of thyroid nodules (small aggregations of cells in the body). In fact, one might have nodules in their thyroid gland for several years before they become cancerous, although most nodules are benign. The exact causes of thyroid cancer are not known. However, since the thyroid is very sensitive to radiation, exposure to it may increase one’s risk of developing this type of cancer. Nodules that produce thyroid hormone are almost never cancerous, but biopsies can be done to determine whether the nodule is benign or malignant. Symptoms may not be present in every individual, but they can include a lump that can be felt through the skin on your neck, changes to your voice, and difficulty swallowing. Thyroid cancers are usually curable by removing the part of the thyroid with the nodules, or even the entire thyroid as a whole as a precautionary measure. Thus, most thyroid cancers will not be worrying, as they are mostly curable.
Scientists are not exactly sure why women are more likely to have thyroid issues, but this seems to be the case. Even so, men are more likely to have widespread thyroid cancer, while women tend to have more localized thyroid cancers. Although thyroid cancers are quite rare, it is important to have annual blood tests and ensure that your doctor feels the thyroid gland in your neck to test for any unusual enlargement. The same measures should be done to test for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, as these are quite common to have. Since most thyroid issues are caused by autoimmune disorders, they can be hard to prevent, which is why it is important to be evaluated by a doctor on a regular basis. Many individuals with thyroid problems do not even know they have one until they deliberately seek testing for it. Try to be aware of the aforementioned symptoms, and see a doctor if you believe you may have a thyroid issue!