Hidden Signs of a Thyroid Condition

An estimated 20 million Americans are living with some type of thyroid issue. Of those, only 40% are educated on their condition.

How does the thyroid work?
The thyroid is a gland found at the base of the neck. It’s characterized by a butterfly shape that sits right below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid produces the hormones calcitonin, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, which impact every cell, tissue and organ in the body. These hormones regulate how fast the body metabolizes fats and carbohydrates, as well as body temperature, heart rate, the production of proteins and calcium in blood.

What are goiters and nodules?
A goiter is an enlarging of the thyroid caused by a lack of iodine in the diet, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s disease, a multinodular goiter, solitary thyroid nodules, thyroid cancer, pregnancy or inflammation. A nodule is a solid or fluid-filled lump that forms on the thyroid gland. A cold nodule doesn’t produce hormones. A warm nodule produces a standard number of hormones and a hot nodule overproduces hormones. Most nodules (more than 90%) are noncancerous.

What are the types of thyroid cancer?
There are four major types of thyroid cancer: papillary (the most common), follicular (slow-growing, unlikely to spread to lymph nodes), medullary (25% of cases are inherited) and anaplastic (rare but very aggressive). Those at risk for developing the disease are women, older adults and individuals with exposure to high levels of radiation. Symptoms may include:

  • A lump in the throat
  • Changes in voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain in the neck area
  • Swollen lymph nodes in neck

What is an overactive thyroid?
An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroxine. This accelerates the body’s metabolism resulting in unintentional weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Additional complications include brittle bones, eye problems, red or swollen skin and thyrotoxic crisis (sudden intensification of symptoms). Women and individuals with Graves’ disease, Plummer’s disease and thyroiditis have a higher risk of developing an overactive thyroid.
Symptoms may include:

  • Changes in bowel movements or menstrual cycle
  • Enlarged thyroid gland
  • Eye irritation
  • Fine or brittle hair
  • Irritability
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nervousness
  • Sensitivity to heat
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Sweating
  • Thinning skin

What is an underactive thyroid?
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) occurs when the gland doesn’t produce enough hormones to adequately support the body. This can cause heart disease, joint problems, infertility and weight gain. Those at risk for an underactive thyroid are women, particularly those who were pregnant in the last six months, individuals over the age of 60, as well as people with autoimmune disease or a family history of thyroid issues. Anyone who has received radiation treatment is also susceptible to the condition. Symptoms may include:

  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Dry skin
  • Elevated blood cholesterol levels
  • Enlarged thyroid gland
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual cycles
  • Hoarseness
  • Impaired memory
  • Muscle weakness or aches
  • Puffy face
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Stiffness, pain or swelling in joints
  • Tenderness
  • Thinning hair
  • Weight gain

Individuals experiencing these symptoms should talk to their doctor for further evaluation.

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About the Author: Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Photo credit: FatCamera

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