Problems with the thyroid include a variety of disorders that can result in the gland producing too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) or too much (hyperthyroidism). Thyroid disorders can affect heart rate, mood, energy level, metabolism, bone health, pregnancy and many other functions.
What You Need to Know about Thyroid Disorders
- Thyroid disorder symptoms depend on whether the thyroid is under- or over-producing hormones.
- Some thyroid issues are autoimmune ― they are due to the body’s immune system attacking the thyroid gland.
- Treatment for thyroid disorders is often successful and, depending on the condition, may involve medication, surgery or other therapy.
What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck. It produces hormones that play a key role in regulating blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, metabolism and the reaction of the body to other hormones.
The two main hormones produced by the thyroid are triiodothyronine, or T3, and thyroxine (T4). The gland also produces calcitonin, which helps bone cells process calcium and add it to the bones.
Types of Thyroid Disorders
Many disorders of the thyroid require care by a physician or other health care professional.
Hyperthyroidism can lead to Graves’ disease, which has many symptoms, including sweating, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), weight loss, protruding eyes and nervousness.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include tiredness, weight gain, depression, abnormal bone development and stunted growth. The most common cause is autoimmune: the production of antibodies that attack the thyroid gland.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder, is an inflammation of the thyroid gland. It can cause a goiter (swelling in the neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland) and other symptoms.
Thyroid nodules and adenomas, small, noncancerous growths, start in the cell layer that lines the inner surface of the thyroid gland. The adenoma itself may secrete thyroid hormone and may cause hyperthyroidism. However, Thyroid adenoma treatment may include surgery to remove the overactive nodule.
Thyroid cancer occurs more often in people who have undergone radiation to the head, neck or chest. However, it may also occur in those without any known risk factors. There are four main types of thyroid cancer: papillary thyroid cancer, follicular thyroid cancer, anaplastic thyroid cancer and medullary thyroid cancer. Most thyroid cancer can be treated successfully.
Thyroid Disorders in Women
Women’s thyroid disease can affect their hormone balance and cause problems in puberty, menstruation, fertility, pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Thyroid Hormone Replacement Therapy
Thyroid hormone comes in pill form and is often used to treat an underactive thyroid that is secreting little or no thyroid hormones. The most commonly prescribed thyroid hormone replacement is synthetic thyroxine (T4).
Hypothyroidism and Pregnancy
Thyroid hormones pass from mother to fetus, and adequate amounts are important for normal growth and brain development. Hypothyroidism during pregnancy can be treated safely with thyroid hormone medications.
Postpartum thyroiditis is inflammation of the thyroid gland that occurs after giving birth and can cause hyper- or hypothyroidism. It is treatable with medication, and in about 80% of cases resolves after 12 to 18 months.
Prevention and Risk Factors of Thyroid Disorders
There are several risk factors for thyroid disorders, some of which are preventable:
- Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop thyroid disorders.
- Age: The risk of thyroid disorders increases with age.
- Family history: Having a family history of thyroid disorders increases your risk of developing one.
- Radiation exposure: Exposure to radiation, especially during childhood, increases the risk of thyroid cancer and other thyroid disorders.
- Iodine deficiency: A lack of iodine in the diet can lead to hypothyroidism and goiter.
- Certain medications: Some medications, such as lithium and amiodarone, can affect thyroid function.
To help prevent thyroid disorders, you can follow these steps:
- Eat a balanced diet that includes enough iodine, which is important for thyroid function.
- Avoid radiation exposure, especially to the neck area.
- Manage stress, as stress can affect thyroid function.
- Get regular check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor your thyroid function.
- If you have a family history of thyroid disorders, talk to your healthcare provider about screening and monitoring your thyroid function.
- Avoid smoking, as smoking can increase the risk of thyroid disorders and thyroid cancer.
Please note that while some risk factors for thyroid disorders are preventable, others are not. If you are at risk for thyroid disorders, talk to your healthcare provider about monitoring your thyroid function and getting appropriate screenings.
Treatments and Therapies
The treatment for thyroid disorders depends on the specific condition and severity. Here are some common treatments and therapies for thyroid disorders:
- Medications: Depending on the type of thyroid disorder, medications may be prescribed to regulate the function of the thyroid gland. For example, levothyroxine may be prescribed for hypothyroidism, while anti-thyroid medications may be prescribed for hyperthyroidism.
- Radioactive iodine therapy: This is a type of treatment for hyperthyroidism that involves taking a radioactive iodine pill that destroys the overactive thyroid cells.
- Surgery: In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove all or part of the thyroid gland. This may be necessary if a nodule or lump is cancerous, or if other treatments are not effective.
- Thyroid hormone replacement therapy: This involves taking thyroid hormone replacement medication to supplement the hormones that the thyroid gland is not producing enough of.
- Lifestyle changes: Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and avoiding smoking can all help to support thyroid health.
- Alternative therapies: Some people may use complementary or alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or herbal supplements, to support thyroid health. However, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting any alternative therapies, as some may interfere with medications or have negative side effects.
The specific treatment plan will depend on the individual and their specific thyroid disorder. It’s important to work closely with a healthcare provider to determine the best treatment approach.