January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Up to 20 million Americans have a thyroid condition — and up to 60 percent of them don’t know it. The thyroid can be either overactive or under-active. Both conditions can lead to significant health problems.
The thyroid is found in the middle of the lower neck. The hormones it produces (T3 and T4) affect every cell in the body. They help control your body temperature and heart rate and help regulate the production of protein. If the thyroid produces too much — or too little T3 and T4, it can create problems. Specifically, those conditions are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
Here are the facts:
- An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease
- Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition
- Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems
- The causes of thyroid problems are largely unknown
- Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility
Hyperthyroidism: overworked and stressed out
Hyperthyroidism happens when the thyroid produces too much T-4. Symptoms include irritability, nervousness, shaking, muscle weakness, sudden weight loss, sleeping problems, fatigue, hair loss, diarrhea and dry thin skin or nails.
Graves’ disease is a type of hyperthyroidism that affects about one percent of the population. It’s a genetic autoimmune condition that can cause the tissue and muscle behind the eyes to swell (Graves opthalmopathy).
Hyperthyroidism is a lifelong, but treatable, condition. It’s diagnosed through a physical exam, blood test and other thyroid tests if appropriate. Treatments include anti-thyroid medicines and radioactive iodine to slow hormone production. In rare cases, surgery may be required.
Hypothyroidism: underactive and tired out
Sometimes the thyroid doesn’t produce enough T-3 and T-4 hormones, or enough thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). That leads to hypothyroidism. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, depression, forgetfulness, weight gain, poor appetite, constipation, sensitivity to cold/heat or itchy sore scalp as well as brittle hair and nails. Doctors will normally do a physical exam and a blood test to check TSH levels. Standard treatment involves daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine to regulate hormone levels. The dosage may change over time, so yearly doctor visits are recommended.
What to do if you suspect Thyroid Disorder?
If you think you or your loved one may have an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you can start by doing a self-check of your (or your loved one’s) neck for lumps, which could be an indication of a thyroid condition.
How to Perform A Self-Check:
Hold a hand mirror towards your neck, above the collarbones where you can see the area below your Adam’s apple.
1. Tilt the head back and take a sip of water.
2. Swallow the water and watch your neck for signs of bulging.
3. Repeat the steps a few times to make sure you don’t see obvious signs of bulging.
4. If you discover a bulge, nodule or an enlarged gland, contact your physician.
The only way to know for sure if you have thyroid disease of any type is to have a blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels. To confirm whether there is a thyroid concern, your physician may perform a thyroid-stimulating hormone test. This blood test measures whether the gland is working properly. It is highly recommended to get tested if you are a senior over 60, have family members diagnosed with the disease or believe you have symptoms.