Most people with thyroid disease don’t even know they have it. More than one in eight Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, but up to 60% are unaware of it.
That’s because the symptoms — fatigue, depression, sleep disturbances, and weight loss or gain, among others — could just as well be signs of other medical conditions and life stages.
That’s what makes Thyroid Awareness Month, which falls in January each year, so important. If both people and doctors think of thyroid problems more often, cases can be diagnosed earlier and the disease can be managed sooner.
What is a thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. Although it is small, the thyroid gland plays a vital role in our health, affecting many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin. Making sure that your thyroid gland is healthy and functioning properly is critical to your wellness.
When your thyroid doesn’t work properly, it can impact your entire body. If your body makes too much thyroid hormone, you can develop a condition called hyperthyroidism. If your body makes too little thyroid hormone, it’s called hypothyroidism. Both conditions are serious and need to be treated by your healthcare provider.
What does the thyroid do?
Your thyroid has an important job to do within your body — releasing and controlling thyroid hormones that control metabolism. Metabolism is a process where the food you take into your body is transformed into energy. This energy is used throughout your entire body to keep many of your body’s systems working correctly. Think of your metabolism as a generator. It takes in raw energy and uses it to power something bigger.
The thyroid controls your metabolism with a few specific hormones — T4 and T3. These two hormones are created by the thyroid and they tell the body’s cells how much energy to use. When your thyroid works properly, it will maintain the right amount of hormones to keep your metabolism working at the right rate. As the hormones are used, the thyroid creates replacements.
This is all supervised by something called the pituitary gland. Located in the center of the skull, below your brain, the pituitary gland monitors and controls the amount of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream. When the pituitary gland senses a lack of thyroid hormones or a high level of hormones in your body, it will adjust the amounts with its own hormone. This hormone is called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). The TSH will be sent to the thyroid and it will tell the thyroid what needs to be done to get the body back to normal.
What is thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease is a general term for a medical condition that keeps your thyroid from making the right amount of hormones. Your thyroid typically makes hormones that keep your body functioning normally. When the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, your body uses energy too quickly. This is called hyperthyroidism. Using energy too quickly will do more than make you tired — it can make your heart beat faster, cause you to lose weight without trying, and even make you feel nervous. On the flip side of this, your thyroid can make too little thyroid hormone. This is called hypothyroidism. When you have too little thyroid hormone in your body, it can make you feel tired, you might gain weight and you may even be unable to tolerate cold temperatures.
These two main disorders can be caused by a variety of conditions. They can also be passed down through families (inherited).
Why is thyroid awareness so important?
Because the thyroid helps to control so many-body systems, the results from it not properly functioning can be serious. Hyperthyroidism, when the gland produces too much hormone, can lead to osteoporosis, vision loss, heart problems, and stroke. Hypothyroidism can lead to lead to obesity, heart problems, depression, infertility, and others. You can see why this little gland working right can be so important.
Symptoms of thyroid problems:
There are a variety of symptoms you could experience if you have a thyroid disease. Unfortunately, symptoms of a thyroid condition are often very similar to the signs of other medical conditions and stages of life. This can make it difficult to know if your symptoms are related to a thyroid issue or something else entirely.
For the most part, the symptoms of thyroid disease can be divided into two groups — those related to having too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) and those related to having too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can include:
- Experiencing anxiety, irritability and nervousness.
- Having trouble sleeping.
- Losing weight.
- Having an enlarged thyroid gland or a goiter.
- Having muscle weakness and tremors.
- Experiencing irregular menstrual periods or having your menstrual cycle stop.
- Feeling sensitive to heat.
- Having vision problems or eye irritation.
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can include:
- Feeling tired.
- Gaining weight.
- Experiencing forgetfulness.
- Having frequent and heavy menstrual periods.
- Having dry and coarse hair.
- Having a hoarse voice.
- Experiencing an intolerance to cold temperatures.
Screenings for thyroid dysfunction:
There are blood tests used to measure thyroid hormones but not all are useful in all situations. The following are tests used to evaluate thyroid function.
- TSH tests measure the TSH level in the blood which is the best way to initially test thyroid function. Changes in TSH can serve as an early warning before levels become too high or too low.
- T4 tests measure T4 which is the main form of thyroid hormone circulating in the blood. Levels help determine if a patient has hypo or hyperthyroidism.
- T3 tests are useful to diagnose hyperthyroidism. People who are hyperthyroid will have an elevated T3 level.
Diagnosing a thyroid condition:
Sometimes, thyroid disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are easily confused with those of other conditions. You may experience similar symptoms when you are pregnant or aging and you would when developing thyroid disease. Fortunately, there are tests that can help determine if your symptoms are being caused by a thyroid issue. These tests include:
The specific blood tests that will be done to test your thyroid can include:
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced in the pituitary gland and regulates the balance of thyroid hormones — including T4 and T3 — in the bloodstream. This is usually the first test your provider will do to check for thyroid hormone imbalance. Most of the time, thyroid hormone deficiency (hypothyroidism) is associated with an elevated TSH level, while thyroid hormone excess (hyperthyroidism) is associated with a low TSH level. If TSH is abnormal, measurement of thyroid hormones directly, including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) may be done to further evaluate the problem.
- T4: Thyroxine tests for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, and used to monitor treatment of thyroid disorders. Low T4 is seen with hypothyroidism, whereas high T4 levels may indicate hyperthyroidism.
- FT4: Free T4 or free thyroxine is a method of measuring T4 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T4 and may prevent accurate measurement.
- T3: Triiodothyronine tests help diagnose hyperthyroidism or to show the severity of hyperthyroidism. Low T3 levels can be observed in hypothyroidism, but more often this test is useful in the diagnosis and management of hyperthyroidism, where T3 levels are elevated.
- FT3: Free T3 or free triiodothyronine is a method of measuring T3 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T3 and may prevent accurate measurement.
These tests alone aren’t meant to diagnose any illness but may prompt your healthcare provider to do additional testing to evaluate for a possible thyroid disorder. Talk to your healthcare provider about the ranges for these thyroid blood tests. Your ranges might not be the same as someone else’s. That’s often alright. If you have any concerns or worries about your blood test results, talk to your provider.
In many cases, taking a look at the thyroid itself can answer a lot of questions. Your healthcare provider might do an imaging test called a thyroid scan. This allows your provider to look at your thyroid to check for increased size, shape, or growths (nodules).
Your provider could also use an imaging test called an ultrasound. This is a diagnostic procedure that transmits high-frequency sound waves, inaudible to the human ear, through body tissues. The echoes are recorded and transformed into video or photographic images. You may think of ultrasounds related to pregnancy, but they are used to diagnose many different issues within your body. Unlike X-rays, ultrasounds do not use radiation.
There’s typically little or no preparation before your ultrasound. You don’t need to change your diet beforehand or fast. During the test, you’ll lie flat on a padded examining table with your head positioned on a pillow so that your head is tilted back. A warm, water-soluble gel is applied to the skin over the area that’s being examined. This gel won’t hurt your skin or stain your clothes. Your healthcare provider will then apply a probe to your neck and gently move it around to see all parts of the thyroid.
An ultrasound typically takes about 20 to 30 minutes.
Another way to quickly check the thyroid is with a physical exam in your healthcare provider’s office. This is a very simple and painless test where your provider feels your neck for any growths or enlargement of the thyroid.
Endocrinologist in Jupiter
If you believe that you are suffering from any of these conditions or are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is best to find a reputable endocrinologist for an evaluation. Whether you are experiencing thyroid problems or testosterone deficiency, you can rely on the expertise of Dr. Angela Richter.
A board-certified endocrinologist, Dr. Richter is well-known for her holistic approach that takes into consideration the patient’s background, goals, and unique circumstances to tailor-fit a medical plan that will help each of her patients.
To schedule an appointment, contact us today at (561) 622-6111 or book directly through our website. We look forward to helping you enjoy a lifetime of health and wellness.