You may have heard of the thyroid gland, but do you know how much it can impact your health? A tiny gland in the front of your neck, the thyroid exerts an oversized influence on your bodily functions.
It produces hormones that control energy production and influence your metabolism. Those hormones impact your breathing, body temperature, digestion, heart rate, and even how fast you burn calories. If your gland is too active, you may be prone to excessive sweating, a rapid heartbeat, weight loss, fatigue, or other symptoms. And if it’s sluggish, you may experience depression, fatigue, a slow heart rate, weight gain, or joint and muscle pain.
The thyroid works in concert with the pituitary gland, which regulates the amount of hormones made by the thyroid by releasing more or less of thyroid-stimulating hormones, or TSH.
When thyroid hormone levels increase, bodily systems may speed up. And when levels drop, systems slow down.
About 1 in 20 Americans ages 12 and older has an under-active thyroid, or hypothyroidism, according to the National Institutes of Health. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can negatively impact your health, resulting in heart disease, joint pain, obesity, and other problems.
Although middle-aged and elderly women are most likely to have hypothyroidism, anyone can develop the disorder.
A variety of factors can cause the condition, including autoimmune disorders, which allow the immune system to attack and wipe out body cells. Other possible causes include surgery to remove your thyroid, radiation therapy against cancer, certain medications, an iodine deficiency, and pituitary disorders.
See a doctor if you feel unusually tired, cold, or depressed, or have other symptoms, such as a puffy face, dry skin, a hoarse voice, or constipation, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic.
It can be difficult to diagnose thyroid disorders because the symptoms are similar to many other conditions and often develop slowly over time. Confusion, anxiety, and mental fogginess are sometimes mistaken for normal aging or dementia.
If Dr. Lamy suspects hypothyroidism, he may order a test to help confirm a diagnosis and pinpoint the cause. The test measures the amount of thyroid-stimulating hormones in the blood.
Treatment includes daily use of artificial thyroid hormones, which helps restore hormone levels and reverse symptoms of the disease. Patients should also get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and reduce stress to ease symptoms.
Fewer people—about 1 in 100—have an over-active thyroid. Hyperthyroidism can be caused by several conditions, including the autoimmune disorder known as Graves’ disease.
Treatment includes medication to slow or block hormone production or an oral dose of radioactive iodine to destroy thyroid cells. Visit the doctor if you have a sudden, unexplained loss of weight, sweating, rapid heartbeat, muscle weakness, fatigue, or frequent bowel movements.
But if you don’t notice any signs of thyroid disorders, should you be screened for the disease?
Given the thyroid’s importance, Dr. Lamy favors early, regular screening, and he looks for any onset of thyroid disfunction as part of his preventative care of patients. The American Thyroid Association also advises regular testing, urging adults to be screened starting at age 35.
Other experts take a different view. The United States Preventive Services Task Force does not endorse routine screening of patients who have no symptoms, while the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommends screening for hypothyroidism in patients older than 60 years.
If you notice signs of thyroid disease, talk with Dr. Lamy about your options. Based on your symptoms, age, and medical exam, he can help you decide if further testing or treatment is needed.