You or someone you know might have a thyroid problem. With an estimated 59 million Americans affected, thyroid disease is much more common than most people think. A problematic thyroid, when left undiagnosed, can dramatically increase the risk of heart disease, mood changes, sexual dysfunction and infertility. Teresa A. Hubka, DO, an osteopathic obstetrician and gynecologist from Chicago, details the symptoms associated with thyroid disease so you can know the signs and get the immediate treatment you need.
"The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located on the front of the neck, produces thyroid hormones which regulate the body's metabolism," explains Dr. Hubka. "There are two common conditions associated with thyroid diseases: hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid disease), which speeds up the metabolism when the thyroid glands produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormones; and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid disease), which slows down the metabolism when the thyroid hormones fall below normal in the bloodstream," she says. "In both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, the thyroid can become larger than normal, creating a lump under the skin called a goiter."
According to Dr. Hubka, there are some common symptoms associated with each condition:
Nervousness or irritability
Increased perspiration, intolerance to heat, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, a fast heartbeat
Irregular menstrual periods and muscle weakness
Weight loss, even when eating more than usual
Eyes that look irritated or like they’re staring. Sometimes the tissues around the eyes become inflamed and swollen, and the eyes appear to bulge out.
Fuzzy thinking, body pain, fatigue and slow reflexes
Constipation and fluid retention
Low blood pressure
Sluggishness and muscle weakness
Weight gain, even when not eating more or exercising less than usual
Dry or scaly skin
Poor memory and difficulty concentrating
Diagnosis and Treatment
"Autoimmune thyroid diseases are more common in young and middle-aged women," says Dr. Hubka. "And unfortunately, most times, these diseases go undiagnosed." To diagnose a thyroid disease Dr. Hubka will perform a physical examination, review a patient’s symptoms, and take blood tests to find out if the thyroid hormones in the blood stream are too high or too low.
"Varying treatments are available for thyroid disease depending on the severity of symptoms," she says. Hypothyroidism is usually treated with thyroid hormone replacement pills, which can restore normal levels of thyroid hormones in the blood. "This particular treatment is relatively simple, but it requires doctor visits once or twice a year for an examination, blood tests and medication adjustments," Dr. Hubka points out.
For hyperthyroidism, there are anti-thyroid medications, which block the thyroid's production of thyroid hormones. “Most people will need to take medications for months or years to keep their condition under control,” she explains. There are also more permanent treatments such as radioactive iodine which can be taken in capsules or mixed with a glass of water. Another permanent treatment is a thyroidectomy, a surgical procedure to remove most of the thyroid gland. "There are risks involved with both treatments," warns Dr. Hubka. "Surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid, or radioactive iodine treatment to the thyroid, typically results in an underactive thyroid that will need to be treated with thyroid hormone replacement tablets."
"People who smoke, are pregnant, over-consume soy food, have been exposed to radiation or have experienced extremely stressful events are at risk for developing thyroid disease," says Dr. Hubka. Family history is also a determining factor. "I always tell my patients to look at their family history and note past discussions of goiters or glandular problems," she says.
So, what should you learn about thyroid disease? "Pay attention to your body. If there is any significant changes in weight or lingering change in emotional status, seek medical treatment. Diagnosis is always the first step to getting the proper treatment for thyroid disease," concludes Dr. Hubka.
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help prevent illness and encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.