Learn more about the thyroid gland and conditions related to its function.
Like many parts of the human body, the thyroid gland is one that goes relatively unnoticed unless something is wrong.
According to the American Thyroid Association, more than 12 percent of Americans (20 million) have some form of thyroid disease and nearly 60 percent of those people are unaware of their condition. The symptoms of thyroid disease mimic those of several other conditions, and can make it difficult to specifically diagnose.
Located in the lower-front portion of the neck, the thyroid gland is an endocrine gland, shaped like a butterfly, that makes thyroid hormones. Those hormones help the body use energy and stay warm. Thyroid hormones are secreted into the blood and carried to tissues in the body to help keep the brain, heart and muscles functioning normally.
Dr. John C. Morris, president of the American Thyroid Association and professor of medicine and endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, says even when problems with the thyroid gland are moderate to severe, the symptoms still remain relatively non-specific — weight loss, feeling tired, racing heart and feeling cold are just a few examples.
Physical and laboratory testing specific to the thyroid gland is required for the most accurate findings.
“The tests we do these days are extremely sensitive and precise,” Morris says.
“An important part of the diagnosis is the laboratory confirmation that the thyroid is the cause of the symptoms and physical findings.”
Autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease affect millions of people, with 78 percent of those affected being women. Findings published in the American Journal of Pathology show immune responses differ between men and women, but there is no clear defining factor as to why.
“Up to 10 percent of women at some point in their life will have some difficulties with their thyroid function,” Morris says. “No one knows for sure why. Thyroid disease is quite common and considerably more common in women than in men. But there are no short answers as to why.”
WHAT IS THYROID DISEASE?
Simply put, thyroid disease is a condition that causes the thyroid gland to produce an incorrect amount of the hormone. Morris says the thyroid is under the control of the pituitary gland, dictating the correct amounts of hormone released in the body.
When too much thyroid hormone is produced — a condition called hyperthyroidism — the patient’s body feels weak, they may experience mood swings, nervousness or anxiety, irregular heartbeat and trouble sleeping. When too little thyroid hormone is produced — also known as hypothyroidism — the body may have a hard time regulating temperature.
Patients may also suffer memory loss, irritability, depression, hair loss, dry or rough skin and irregular weight gain or loss. The most common variation of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease and the most common variation of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; both are named after the doctors who first described them.
“Basically, think of it as three broad things that can happen to the thyroid: it can function more than it should, less than it should or it can have a lump, nodule or goiter,” Morris says.
Depending on the abnormality, most thyroid conditions are treated with medication. After a few weeks or months, Morris says patients can experience a remission of the symptoms. In cases of mild hyperthyroidism, the condition may be controlled through proper medication therapy. In very mild cases, Morris says, it may not need to be treated at all.
“There is no special diet. There are no supplements, or additives, exercise programs or lifestyle modifications that can cure disorders of the thyroid,” Morris says.
When thyroid production is low, patients are prescribed thyroid hormone. Through blood tests, accurate levels can be achieved and maintained with a once-a-day dose of the hormone. In instances where the thyroid gland is removed or ceases function, the same hormone is prescribed.
“There are millions of patients out there who don’t have a thyroid anymore or whose thyroid has stopped functioning who live quite happily and healthy just taking one pill a day,” Morris says. “You can live quite well without your thyroid gland, but you do have to replace the hormone. It can be precisely adjusted to get hormone levels as they would be if the gland were functioning normally.”