Information on Thyroid

The thyroid gland produces hormones which regulate the body's metabolic rate as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development and bone maintenance.

Located at the front of the neck, just below the Adam's apple (larynx) the thyroid gland is butterfly-shaped and consists of two 'lobes' located either side of the windpipe (trachea). A regular thyroid gland is usually outwardly not visible or able to be felt if finger pressure is applied to the neck.

The thyroid releases the hormones, thyroxine also known as T4 and triiodothyronine, known as T3. The thyroid determines the metabolic rate of most of your body's organs by controlling the release of such hormones and is further regulated by an additional hormone known as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is made by the pituitary gland in the brain.

What Can Go Wrong With My Thyroid Gland?

Problems may occur within the thyroid gland, when it becomes either underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism) because it produces either too little or too much thyroid hormone. This can occur from birth (although it is rare), or develop later on in life. Thyroid cancer is also a disease that may occur should your gland not function correctly.

An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and the majority are actually unaware of their condition putting many symptoms down to the stressful lives that we lead in today's society. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be managed with effective medical attention.

The thyroid can produce an imbalance of thyroid hormones. Thyrotoxicosis is the terminology given when there is too much thyroid hormone in the bloodstream which could be caused by an over activity of the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) as in Graves' disease, inflammation of the thyroid or a thyroid tumor.

When thyroid hormones are too low, it is known as Hypothyroidism. In adults this affects their metabolism, decreasing it drastically and is thought to occur from autoimmune diseases, poor iodine intake or be brought on by use of certain drugs. Since thyroid hormones are essential for physical and mental development, hypothyroidism during development (i.e. before birth and during childhood) can result in learning difficulties and reduced physical growth.

Symptoms Of Thyroid Diseases

Hypothyroidism, (under active thyroid), presents with low levels of T4 and T3 which in turn causes metabolism to slow down.

Common symptoms can include coarse/dry hair, confusion or forgetfulness (often mistaken for dementia in seniors), constipation, depression, dry/scaly skin, fatigue/feeling of sluggishness, hair loss, increased menstrual flow (women), intolerance of cold temperatures, irritability, muscle cramps, reduced heart rate, body weakness and a gain in weight.

If hypothyroidism isn't treated, the symptoms will progress. Although, rarely, a severe form of hypothyroidism can occur, called myxedema. Symptoms include reduced body temperature, impaired mental function and congestive heart failure, a complex situation in which the heart cannot pump blood fast enough to meet the body's needs.

Hyperthyroidism (over active thyroid) results in increased levels of T4 and T3 circulating around in the blood, which speed up your metabolism. Some of the most common symptoms include heart rate increase with abnormal rhythm or pounding (palpitations), high blood pressure, increased body temperature (feeling unusually warm), increased sweating, clamminess, feeling agitated or nervous, tremors in the hands, feeling of restlessness even though the person is tired or weak and increased appetite accompanied by weight loss. Bones, sleep, menstrual cycle for women and weight can also be negatively affected.

Graves' disease, a hyperthyroid state disease, as well as the common symptoms listed above for an over active thyroid, may cause a goiter (a bulge in the neck) in the location of the enlarged thyroid gland. It can also cause the eyes to bulge out, which may result in vision being negatively affected. Occasionally, the skin over the shins can become raised.

If hyperthyroidism is left untreated or is not treated properly, a life-threatening condition called thyroid storm can occur. This is a complicated result of extreme over activity of the thyroid gland and symptoms include mental confusion, fever, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, jaundice, mood swings and muscle weakness. Perhaps the most frightening is the possibility of going into thyroid storm. This is considered a medical emergency, and can occur after the following triggers: trauma, infection, surgery, uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy or labor, or taking too much thyroid medication.

What are the Causes of Thyroid Disorders?

Theories for the causes of thyroid problems differ greatly and generally, are largely unknown.

The most common cause of hypothyroidism (under active) is Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition where the body produces antibodies that destroy parts of the thyroid gland. Thyroid removal via surgery and certain medications are also known to cause an under active thyroid. Other causes include pituitary gland or hypothalamus problems and iodine deficiencies, albeit these are rare. Unfortunately, it is a condition that can be present from birth, this is called congenital hypothyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism has various causes with Graves' disease being being the most common. An increase in an antibody produced by a malfunctioning immune system leads to an overstimulation of the thyroid gland. Other forms of overactive thyroid are called toxic nodular goiter or toxic thyroid adenoma.

When pituitary gland makes too much TSH Secondary hyperthyroidism may occur, leading to an increased stimulation of the thyroid gland. The pituitary gland may be affected by a tumor or become insensitive to thyroid hormones which leads TSH levels to rise, although it is more rare.

Thyroiditis is also another possible cause of hyperthyroidism and witnesses the thyroid gland becoming inflamed.

Cancer may also affect the thyroid, there are four types: papillary, follicular, anaplastic, and medullary. Causes include the association with radiation treatment or an unexplained genetic mutation e.g. BRAF gene mutation. Also, other cancers can metastasize to the thyroid (e.g., lymphoma, breast cancer), however, this is rare.


How Are Thyroid Disorders Diagnosed?

Factors such as stress, depression, anxiety, tiredness, and other emotional or mental states can mask a thyroid hormonal imbalance. Doctors have been documented to perceive symptoms caused by a thyroid imbalance as minor, fundamentally because many of us complain at different times in our life of varying degrees of tiredness, lack of interest in life, and weight problems. Patients fail to acknowledge the full impact of their symptoms or don't communicate effectively with their doctor. A proper diagnosis may be hindered by failing to effectively communicate all of the symptoms. Good communication and a thorough doctor is what's needed to effectively diagnose and treat thyroid conditions.

A critical part of discovering and diagnosing thyroid conditions is the clinical evaluation. As part of this evaluation, your practitioner typically should do the following - "feel (also known as “palpating") your neck; listen to your thyroid using a stethoscope; test your reflexes; check your heart rate, rhythm and blood pressure; measure your weight; measure body temperature; examine your face; examine your eyes; observe the general quantity and quality of your hair; examine your skin; examine your nails and hands; and review other clinical signs".

Other tests may include blood, imaging and biopsy tests. Additionally, there are some tests considered by mainstream practitioners to be controversial, however, they are well-accepted and in use among alternative, integrative and holistic physicians. These tests include iodine patch tests, saliva testing, urinary testing and basal body temperature testing.

If you are not happy with the diagnosis from your doctor, obtain a secondary opinion.