Your thyroid – a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck – plays a critical role in many different systems throughout your body. It releases and controls specific hormones that control your metabolism, the process in which the food you consume is transformed into energy that is used to keep many of your body’s systems working correctly.
The pituitary gland, which is located in the center of your skull below your brain, monitors and controls the number of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream. When it detects a shortage of thyroid hormones – or a higher-than-normal level of hormones in your body – it normally corrects the amounts with its own thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
However, when your thyroid uncontrollably makes too many hormones, a condition known as hyperthyroidism, or too little (hypothyroidism), it can cause a variety of unwanted symptoms.
With an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), you may experience:
- Anxiety, irritability, and nervousness
- Trouble sleeping
- Severe weight loss
- An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
- Muscle weakness and tremors
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Sensitivity to heat
- Vision problems or eye irritation
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can be just as bad, resulting in:
- Uncontrollable weight gain
- Memory lapse or forgetfulness
- Frequent and heavier menstrual periods
- Dry and coarse hair
- A hoarse voice
- Intolerance to cold temperatures
Risk Factors and Causes of Thyroid Disorders
As many as 20 million Americans of all ages and genders have some type of thyroid disease, although women are far more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition. You are at a higher risk of developing a thyroid disorder if you are a woman, older than 60, have a family history of thyroid disease, have a certain medical condition (e.g., Type 1 diabetes, pernicious anemia, primary adrenal insufficiency, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis), take medication high in iodine, or have undergone treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer.
Hypothyroidism can be caused by a number of conditions, including:
- Thyroiditis, an inflammation of the thyroid gland
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an inherited autoimmune condition in which the body’s cells attack and damage the thyroid
- Postpartum thyroiditis, which occurs temporarily in up to 9% of women after childbirth
- Iodine deficiency
- A rare non-functioning thyroid gland
On the other hand, hyperthyroidism can be traced to Graves’ disease, nodules, thyroiditis, or excessive iodine.
Diagnosis and Management of Thyroid Disorders
Since many symptoms associated with a thyroid disorder are similar to those of other conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose but can be confirmed through blood tests, physical exams, and imaging tests.
In terms of managing hyperthyroidism, your healthcare provider has a variety of treatment options that include:
- Anti-thyroid medications (methimazole and propylthiouracil) that stop your thyroid from producing hormones.
- Radioactive iodine, which damages the cells of your thyroid, thus preventing it from producing higher levels of hormones.
- Beta blockers that help manage your symptoms without changing the number of hormones in your body.
- Surgery in the form of a thyroidectomy (removal of your thyroid) to stop the creation of hormones, which then requires you to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of your life. The surgery is performed either with an incision on the front of your neck (traditional method) or in your armpit (scarless). The latter procedure is more complicated and not recommended if you are not at a healthy body weight, have large thyroid nodules, or have been diagnosed with thyroiditis or Graves’ disease.
The main treatment option for hypothyroidism is synthetic thyroid replacement medication, such as levothyroxine.
Endocrinologist in Syracuse, New Jersey
The Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism at SUNY: Upstate Medical University offers patient care, teaching, and research in diabetes, thyroid, adrenal, pituitary, lipid and calcium disorders, metabolic bones diseases, and transgender medicine.
Our clinical practice, the Joslin Diabetes Center at Upstate, is affiliated with the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston and provides comprehensive state-of-the-art care for children and adults with diabetes, while our endocrinologists evaluate and manage adults with thyroid abnormalities.
For more information about our patient care services, simply click here.