What are Thyroid disorders?
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck. It is responsible for producing the hormones Thyroxine (T4) and Triiodothyronine (T3), that regulate numerous metabolic processes in our body. Thyroid disorders are therefore conditions affecting the functioning of the thyroid gland; many of the body’s functions slow down when these hormones aren’t produced adequately. Thyroid disorders are numerous and vary in nature, including; hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) and thyroid cancer.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Hypothyroidism is the most commonly experienced thyroid disorder, affecting at least 15 in every 1000 women and 1 in every 1000 men. Children often develop it too, while babies could be born with it.
An underactive thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormone thyroxine as per your body’s needs. This lack of adequate hormones slows down your metabolic processes, commonly causing fatigue and weight gain. There is no way of preventing an underactive thyroid, but the condition can be managed well when duly diagnosed and treated.
Thyroid disorders are caused generally because either the immune system attacks the thyroid gland or due to damage to the gland that may occur during treatment for hyperthyroidism or thyroid cancer. At an early age, hypothyroidism, can lead to mental retardation and stunted growth. Long-term if untreated it changes the way the body processes fat, it can cause high cholesterol levels and blockages in arteries, leading to serious heart problems such as angina (chest pain) and heart attack.
Symptoms for hypothyroidism usually develop slowly over years, and can be similar to other conditions, one may not notice them for years. Common symptoms include;- Fatigue
- Weight gain
- Hypersensitivity to cold temperatures
- Dry skin and hair
- Muscle aches
- Loss of sex drive
- Pain, numbness or a tingling sensation in the hands and fingers
- Irregular or heavy periods.
- Fluid retention
Symptoms when the condition is at a more advanced stage includel- Hoarse voice
- Puffy face
- Slow heart rate
- Hearing loss
Children with an underactive thyroid often experience mental retardation, slower growth, and hit puberty earlier than normal. Elderly people with an underactive thyroid may develop memory loss and depression.
Hypothyroidism, which results in the production of insufficient thyroxine (T4), can develop due to problems associated directly with the thyroid gland, the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus, which together regulate the thyroid gland mechanism.
It is usually caused due to an autoimmune reaction, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland damaging it, whereby it is unable to produce thryoxine. Hashimoto’s disease is the most common autoimmune reaction causing hypothyroidism. The exact nature of it is unclear, however it causes chronic inflammation and consequential failure of the gland. It runs in families and is commonly experienced by people with other immune system disorders such as Type 1 Diabetes.
Hypothyroidism may occur as a side effect of previous treatment of the thyroid gland, such as surgery or chemotherapy for thyroid cancer.
Other less common causes resulting in an underactive thyroid include a lack of dietary iodine, which is required to make thyroxine, congenital hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland remains underdeveloped in the womb, damage to the pituitary gland, which regulates the thyroid gland by secreting thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), and some medications such as Lithium, used to treat mental health conditions, Amiodarone, used to treat irregular heartbeats, and Interferons, used to treat certain types of cancer and Hepatitis C.
It is important for an underactive thyroid to be diagnosed early, while short-term it does not always present with serious symptoms, in can lead to other serious complications in the long-term, such a high blood cholesterol, blocking of the arteries, chest pains and heart attack.
Your GP will ask you about your medical history and study the nature of your symptoms. A final diagnosis is made through a thyroid functioning test. It is a blood test measuring thyroid hormone levels, and is the only accurate way to diagnose the condition. The test looks at the levels of TSH and T4 in the blood. High levels of TSH and low levels of T4 would indicate an underactive thyroid. Whereas high levels of TSH but normal levels of T4 would indicate a risk of developing an underactive thyroid in the future.
If tests suggest an underactive thyroid, but you don’t show any symptoms, you may have subclinical thyroidism that does not require any immediate action.
Treatment for hypothyroidism aims to return your level of thyroid hormones back to normal, to allow for proper metabolic functioning of the body. Daily hormone replacement tablets are prescribed to replace the hormone thyroxine, which is not produced sufficiently.
Once prescribed, regular blood tests are taken, till the correct dose of thyroxine for your body is decided upon. You may be started on a low dose, which is increased gradually, depending on your body’s response to it. While treatment is required for the rest of your life to manage the condition, you should be able to lead a normal and healthy life.
If left untreated or not managed correctly, it could to further complications, including heart disease, swelling of the neck, pregnancy problems and dermatological changes that are associated with severe hypothyroidism.