The thyroid gland is often referred to as the body’s engine, and just like the mechanical metaphor when the thyroid gland stops working properly the body eventually starts to sputter.
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. Although small in size, the gland plays a large role by producing thyroid hormone which influences the function of many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin.
It’s when the gland’s hormone production is off balance to one extreme or the other that physical problems start to arise, as is the case when there is either too much thyroid hormone in the system (which is called hyperthyroidism), or there is too little thyroid hormone production (hypothyroidism).
Hyperthyroidism carries a range of symptoms that include unexplained fatigue, weight gain, depression, forgetfulness, feeling cold, hair loss, low sex drive, constipation or infertility. Hyperthyroidism usually has rapid onset and nonspecific symptoms.
On the flip side, the symptoms of hyperthyroidism-rapid heart rate, heat intolerance and unexplained weight loss and anxiety-manifest quickly and may cause people to seek medical attention sooner, the most common cause of hyperthyroidism is called Graves’ disease, where antibodies target the thyroid gland, causing it to overproduce thyroid hormone.
The majority of thyroid disease sufferers are women, often diagnosed by their OB/GYN when women are trying to conceive. Thyroid hormone also plays a role in infertility as well. Some females are diagnosed for the first time during their pregnancy.
For both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, medication is prescribed to bring hormone levels back into sync with established ranges. Hyperthyroidism is monitored more closely because it is more acute and can cause heart palpitations, arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat) and heart failure if remains undiagnosed and untreated.
Two other concerns surrounding the thyroid are thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer, which can occur independent of the above thyroid diseases. Nodules are lumps or abnormal masses and can be caused be benign cysts, benign tumors or cancers of the thyroid. Nodules may be single or multiple and differ in size; if too large they may impede nearby structures in the throat and cause swelling and choking.
According to the AACE (Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education), about 60,000 cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed yearly in the U.S. Thyroid cancer is far more common among adult women than men or youth and most cases of thyroid cancer has a good prognosis and high survival rates-especially when diagnosed in its early stages.
Although thyroid disease awareness has increased over the past decade, and more primary physicians are screening for thyroid disease there are still patients with debilitating symptoms that could have easily been remedied by early diagnosis.
If you have Question or concerns about your own health or in regards to thyroid disease, please contact your family physician.