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Thyroid problems can cause a lot of physical and mental suffering and most people don’t even know they have a thyroid disease or thyroid-related problem. You may be familiar with thyroid disease, but do you know what the thyroid gland actually does in the body? Let’s begin with the basics. The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland located at the front of the neck, below the Adam’s apple. It produces thyroid hormones such as T3 (triiodothyronine), T4 (thyroxine) and calcitonin hormone (which regulates the amount of calcium in the blood).

Functions of thyroid hormones

Here are some important functions that the thyroid is responsible for:

  • Increases metabolism
  • Increases absorption by gut
  • Regulates gut movement  
  • Effects appetite
  • Causes breakdown of fat into fatty acids
  • Increases heart rate and blood flow
  • Increases body temperature
  • Crucial in brain development during fetal life
  • Essential for growth and development in children

Thyroid disease

Abnormal function of the thyroid gland leads to different types of thyroid disease or problems. Thyroid abnormalities are one of the most prevalent endocrine disorders worldwide. According to the American Thyroid Association, approximately 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease and more than half of them are unaware of their condition! Women are more prone to develop thyroid disease. Data suggests that 1 out of 8 women will develop thyroid disease during her lifetime.

You might want to talk to your doctor about getting tested if:

  • you’ve had a thyroid problem in the past
  • you’ve had thyroid surgery or radiotherapy in the past
  • have associated conditions like anemia, goitre or Type 1 diabetes

What causes thyroid disease?

The most common cause of thyroid disease worldwide is iodine deficiency, which may result in an underactive thyroid, enlargement of thyroid or mental deficits in children, whose mothers were iodine deficient during pregnancy. Other forms of thyroid disease are described below.

Common thyroid conditions

Goiter:

An enlarged thyroid gland is called a goiter and usually occurs when your diet doesn’t have as much iodine as it should. Research suggests that up to 200 million people worldwide are affected by goiter, and an incredible 800 million are iodine deficient. Depending on how large it becomes, a goiter can cause the following thyroid disease symptoms:

  • Compression of neck
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Wheezing or coarse cough

Hypothyroidism:

As the name indicates hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid. The production of thyroid hormones is reduced or the body is unable to utilize existing hormones. There are many conditions which cause hypothyroidism, some of the more common ones being Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (inflammation of thyroid gland), post-surgical hypothyroidism, hypothyroidism caused by certain medicines and congenital (by birth) hypothyroidism. Following are the symptoms of hypothyroidism:

  • Weight gain
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased heart rate

 

Hyperthyroidism:

Hyperthyroidism is when the gland becomes overactive and thyroid hormones are produces in excess. It is less common than hypothyroidism and affects only about 1% of women. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s disease, affecting up to 70% of people with a hyperfunctioning thyroid. Other causes may include a toxic thyroid nodule (or multiple nodules), and Plummer’s disease. Symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Increased sweating
  • Tremors in hands
  • restlessness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Bulging eyes (seen in Grave’s disease)
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Brittle hair and nails

Tumors of thyroid gland:

Thyroid swellings  can be scary. One often thinks of cancer but thyroid tumors can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Thyroid adenomas, for instance are benign swellings.

Thyroid cancer, like other thyroid problems, commonly affects women as well. It is the abnormal growth of thyroid cells or tissue and may spread to other parts of the body. The thyroid gland can sometimes be a secondary site to where other cancers have spread. In this case, it is not primarily considered as thyroid cancer. If detected early, it has a good prognosis. Depending on size, symptoms may include:

  • Compression of neck
  • Difficulty in breathing and swallowing
  • Swollen glands
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Other non-specific symptoms of cancer such as weight loss, fatigue and loss of appetite

How can you be sure you have thyroid disease?

Well, many of the symptoms mentioned above are non-specific, hence can easily be dismissed as being a ‘regular’ part of a tough day. Visible signs such as lumps or swellings are more likely to catch your attention. Then, it’s easier to piece the rest of your symptoms together.

If you’re still doubting yourself, the only way to be sure is to see your primary physician, so you can get yourself tested or get a complete thyroid panel done. The results of this blood test will confirm a diagnosis of hypo or hyperthyroidism. If you’re unable to get to a doctor, you can get an online medical consultation by booking a GP appointment online by downloading an app to find a doctor for FREE! MyLiveDoctors is a doctor availability app that can connect you with qualified medical experts within minutes and get you an instant online appointment with doctor. You can send them pictures of a lump you may have on your neck or engage in a video call, so they can guide you for the next step in treatment.

How do you treat thyroid disease?

Treatment and management depend upon the nature of the problem. For instance, thyroid medication or thyroid supplements, in the form of a synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine is given as a daily dose for hypothyroidism. It is easily available by the name of Armour thyroid, but does require a doctor’s prescription. It helps to normalize the hormone levels.

Anti-thyroid medicines such as, propylthiouracil and methimazole are prescribed to treat hyperthyroidism. Significant improvement is seen after about 6-12 weeks, but treatment may be continued for a whole year.

Some people resort to alternative medicine for treating thyroid problems. For example, ashwagandha is an herb used in ayurvedic medicine that has shown promising results for balancing thyroid hormones. Natural treatment of thyroid problem with a healthy diet has shown favorable results as well. Some foods that you can include in your ‘thryoid problems diet’ include seaweed, brazil nuts, yogurt, fish and eggs.

Goiters can be treated with radio-active iodine that kills the thyroid cells and reduces the swelling. It is taken orally and reaches the thyroid gland by the bloodstream. Larger goiters and thyroid cancer treatment involve surgery to remove the swellings along with the affected lymph nodes and surrounding tissue to which the cancer may have spread.

So, if you haven’t been feeling like yourself lately, don’t blame it on work or stress and don’t let others tell you that it’s ‘all in your head’. That ‘lump in your throat’ may actually be telling you something! For expert medical advice or a second opinion please visit www.mylivedoctors.com.