To understand thyroid disorders, it’s important to know what the thyroid does for the body and how its functions are vital to human life. The thyroid is a gland that sits at the base of the throat, across the windpipe and it’s considered part of the endocrine system. It’s butterfly-shaped in nature and is central to our body’s metabolism.
By producing and releasing certain thyroid hormones, this gland regulates our metabolic process – i.e. how it processes nutrients into energy and repairing the body. The thyroid produces thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), as well as other minor amounts of hormones. These hormones are sent throughout the body to communicate an important message to its cells – how fast it needs to use the energy created from nutrients we consume.
The thyroid works together with an entire feedback system – including the pituitary gland – to regulate the metabolism, calcium levels, and eliminate unneeded minerals from the kidney. When the thyroid fails to function properly it can throw off these sensitive systems.
What are thyroid disorders?
The term “thyroid disorder” encapsulates a wide array of thyroid conditions that can be chronic or short-term. Generally speaking, most thyroid diseases or disorders relate to an over or under production of thyroid hormones. Thyroid conditions are common in the U.S. with an estimated 20 million people experiencing one or more thyroid disorders.
What causes thyroid disorders?
Thyroid disorders can be present at birth or can develop throughout life. Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are the two most common disorders and may be caused by diseases that hinder thyroid function. Many thyroid diseases are hereditary, thus increasing the chances of blood-related descendants to develop a disease.
Autoimmune disorders can also trigger the development of a thyroid disease. When the immune system begins to attack the body’s internal organs and glands, the thyroid may begin to over or under produce hormones.
Certain instances may place individuals at a higher risk of developing thyroid disease. These include:
- Genetic history
- Pre-existing medical condition including but not limited to Turner syndrome, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases
- Are a female over the age of 60
- Have had radiation treatments or a thyroidectomy
Common Types of Thyroid Gland Disorders
While there are a wide array of thyroid disorders that can affect this important gland, we’ll cover the most common here.
- Hypothyroidism. Resulting from a failure of the thyroid gland to produce enough T4 and T3, individuals experiencing hypothyroidism may feel sluggish, cold, mentally foggy, and have prolonged muscle aches. Without adequate thyroid hormones, the metabolism isn’t able to tell the body to convert enough nutrients to energy. Symptoms of hypothyroidism come on slowly and may gradually worsen over time if left untreated. Specific types of hypothyroidism include:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: a form of hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a chronic autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid causing damage. This thyroid condition is relatively common in the US and one of the more common thyroid disorders.
- Congenital hypothyroidism: occurring at birth, this disorder occurs when the thyroid gland is missing, underdeveloped, or located elsewhere in the body. When left untreated, the infant is unable to develop properly both mentally and physically.
- Hyperthyroidism. Marked by excessive sweating, frequent urination, a quick-pace of thinking, talking, or moving, hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too many hormones. Specific, common types of hyperthyroidism include:
- Graves disease: This chronic autoimmune disorder occurs when the immune system produces autoantibodies which mimic TSH, causing the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormone.
- Abnormal thyroid stimulation: This disorder is triggered by a tumor that produces extra TSH alerts the thyroid to make too much hormone.
- Goiters. Certain conditions can cause a goiter, or an enlarged thyroid gland. These disorders include Hasimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves disease. Goiters cause the actual thyroid structure to enlarge, which can put pressure on the esophagus and windpipe, causing discomfort, trouble breathing, or trouble swallowing.
- Thyroid nodules. More common in women than men, thyroid nodules are most typically discovered by chance. They cause very few symptoms except an occasional lump the neck, felt by personal examination. The majority of thyroid nodules are benign and don’t cause an over or underproduction of thyroid hormones. Occasionally, the nodules can signify cancer.
- Thyroid cancer. Like other cancers, thyroid cancer stems from the uncontrollable growth of misformed thyroid cells. In many cases, it is caught early and can be treated with little ramifications for future quality of life.
Signs and symptoms of thyroid disorders
Signs and symptoms of thyroid disorders can be very noticeable but can also be hard to directly link to thyroid conditions without the help of a doctor. Many of the symptoms mirror other illnesses or general feelings of malaise and, with certain disorders, symptoms may develop very slowly over long periods of time. Here are just some of the signs and symptoms of the most common thyroid disorders.
Symptoms for Hypothyroidism
As described above, hypothyroidism relates to a lack of adequate levels of the main thyroid hormones – T4 and T3. The level of deficiency can drastically affect the severity and type of symptoms one may experience. In general, here are the most common symptoms to occur for those with a hypothyroidism disorder:
- Unexpected weight gain
- Constipation or difficult/irregular bowel movements
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures, particularly in the extremities
- Muscle weakness
- Sudden increase in cholesterol
- General fatigue
- Pain and swelling in the joints
- Swelling in the face
- Heavy or irregular periods
- Loss of hair, especially on the scalp
- Slow resting heart rate
- Easily confused and impaired memory function
Symptoms for Hyperthyroidism
This condition relates to an overproduction of the main thyroid hormones and can present the following symptoms:
- Difficulty concentrating or sitting still
- Increased sweating during regular activity
- Heat sensitivity
- Itchiness all over the body
- Increased need to urinate
- Muscle weakness
- Mood swings
- Unexplainable anxiety and irritability
- Unquenchable thirst
- Decreased libido
Symptoms for thyroid cancer
Severity of symptoms may vary from person to person but common symptoms are as follows:
- Swollen glands in the neck
- Hoarseness or a sore throat that does not clear up on its own in a few weeks
- Difficulty swallowing
- Painless lump in the front of the neck
Types of Thyroid Cancer
The four most common types of thyroid cancer are:
- Papillary carcinoma: this type accounts for approximately 8 out of every 10 cases of thyroid cancer. Women are predominantly affected, especially those under 40.
- Follicular carcinoma: only 1 in every 10 cases of thyroid cancer can be credited to this type. Middle-aged women are largely affected but adults in general can develop this cancer.
- Medullary thyroid carcinoma: Many cases of this rarer form of thyroid cancer are hereditary. If this runs in your family, it’s important to stay on top of your thyroid health.
- Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma: The most serious and life-threatening type, people over the age of 60 are most at risk for this type of thyroid cancer. However, only about 1 in every 50 cases are designated as anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.
In addition to painful and inconvenient symptoms, thyroid disorders and thyroid cancer can drastically affect one’s quality of life. The thyroid is yet another crucial, regulating entity within our body whose functions we need to survive and thrive.
Hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism can affect our ability to work, can hinder our romantic relationships, can stop social interaction, and can leave us feeling isolated. Mental health can be severely affected by sudden weight gain or drop whereas a lack of energy is wholly unhelpful when trying to workout, meet up with friends, bike to work, and even raise children.
Appointments and Next Steps
Unfortunately, thyroid conditions are growing more and more common amongst United States residents. Many factors are to blame, but some include lifestyle factors, like the food we eat and the way we treat our bodies on a daily basis. Vitamin insufficiencies, stress overload, a lack of time spent outdoors, and low food diversity may be to blame for rising rates of thyroid problems in U.S. adults.
If caught early and treated, thyroid conditions can be easily managed without drastic measures or expensive surgeries. However, for certain conditions, like thyroid cancer or thyroid conditions related to autoimmune disorders, more aggressive treatment may be the only option.
For those with minor deficits or minor increased levels of thyroid hormones, a vitamin regimen or supplemental prescription drugs may be prescribed. When taken routinely, this course of treatment can help people get back to their normal lives, restore energy levels, and kick-start the thyroid into producing the appropriate amount of hormones.
Scheduling an Appointment
As part of the endocrine system, thyroid issues can be diagnosed by an endocrinologist. Contact our endocrinologists care team to start a meaningful healthcare journey. For more information about the endocrine system, thyroid diseases, or COVID-19 updates for patients, refer to our patient portal. Our intuitive portal makes it easy for new and established patients to schedule an appointment, review medical records, or chat with a care provider.