The thyroid plays a big role in maintaining your body, despite its small size. This butterfly-shaped gland resides in the front of the neck, where it winds around the windpipe (trachea). Like all other glands, it creates and releases substances that help your body control many important processes.
Specifically, your thyroid secretes hormones — molecules that signal other organs or tissues — that control metabolism, the process that transforms the food you eat into usable energy. The two primary hormones are T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine). They tell your body’s cells how much energy to use.
At Omni-Med Family Care & Urgent Care in Florham Park, New Jersey, family and internal medicine specialist Dr. Roger DiRuggiero understands how important each system of your body is to your overall health. He wants you to know what the signs of a thyroid problem look like, so you can come in and get the timely treatment you need.
What are the risks for developing thyroid problems?
Thyroid disease is very common, with some 20 million people in the United States alone having some form of disorder. Women are about 5-8 times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid problem than men.
You’re at higher risk of developing a thyroid disease if you:
- Have a family history of thyroid problems
- Have an autoimmune condition
- Take a prescription high in iodine (e.g., amiodarone).
- Are over age 60, especially for women
- Have had a past thyroid condition or cancer (thyroidectomy or radiation)
- Have diabetes, another autoimmune disease
The risk related to type 2 diabetes is lower than for type 1, but it’s still higher than for the average person.
What causes thyroid disease?
There are two major categories of thyroid problems, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism, also called an underactive thyroid, occurs when your thyroid doesn’t make enough hormones. This slows down a number of bodily functions, including metabolism.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the US is Hashimoto's disease, where the immune system erroneously attacks the thyroid. The damage prevents the thyroid from producing enough hormones.
Sometimes, the thyroid gland malfunctions from birth. This occurs in about 1 in 4,000 newborns. Left untreated, the child can develop both physical and mental deficiencies.
Hypothyroidism can also be caused by:
- Hyperthyroidism treatment (radioiodine)
- Radiation treatment of certain cancers
- Removal of the thyroid
Hyperthyroidism, also called an overactive thyroid, leads to the production of more thyroid hormone than your body needs, which speeds up metabolism and heart rate. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the US is Graves' disease, a condition where the entire thyroid gland might be overactive and produce too much hormone.
What are common symptoms of thyroid conditions?
Hypothyroidism symptoms develop slowly, over the period of years. The initial symptoms are fatigue and sluggishness. Later, symptoms of a slowed-down metabolism form, including:
- Overly sensitive to cold
- Muscle weakness, joint or muscle pain
- Weight gain, even though you’re not eating more
- Dry skin and dry, thinning hair
- Slow heart rate
- Less sweating than usual
- A puffy face
Your LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels may also be elevated, which can raise your risk for heart disease.
Hyperthyroid symptoms also usually begin slowly, but a faster metabolism can cause symptoms including:
- Weight loss, despite eating normally
- Eating more than normal
- Rapid, irregular, or pounding heartbeat
- Feeling irritable, nervous, or anxious
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trembling hands and fingers
- Feeling unusually hot
- Muscle weakness
- More sweating than usual
- Diarrhea or more bowel movements than normal
- Eye changes that include bulging, redness, or irritation
How is thyroid disease treated?
Hypothyroidism is most often treated with a prescription medication that gives your body the thyroid hormone it needs to work correctly. The most common drugs are man-made forms of the natural hormone your thyroid makes; one of the most common is called levothyroxine. Once started, you’ll probably need to take the medication for the rest of your life.
For hyperthyroidism, the choice of treatment depends on your symptoms and the cause of your condition. Treatments include:
- Antithyroid medicines to block production of new thyroid hormone
- Beta-blockers to block the effects of thyroid hormone on your body (e.g., slowing heart rate)
- Radioiodine to kill the thyroid cells that make thyroid hormones, causing permanent hypothyroidism
- Surgery to remove most or all of the thyroid, creating a need to take replacement hormones for rest of your life
We at Omni-Med Family Care & Urgent Care urge you to take regular checkups seriously, as the best chance of catching thyroid problems before they become a problem is to schedule an annual physical, during which blood tests can determine your thyroid hormone levels.
To make an appointment, call us at 973-377-8776, or schedule online today.