The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck which wraps around the windpipe, just below the Adams apple, and the hormones it produces have a very direct influence on a large number of vital bodily functions. These include breathing, heart rate, body temperature, the functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems, regulation of body weight and the menstrual cycle, muscle strength, and many more. In other words, the thyroid gland plays a crucial role in almost all of the metabolic processes in the body.
As the percentage of thyroid disorders among the population steadily grows, the awareness about the importance of this organ and its functions increases as well. Statistics from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists show that at least thirty million Americans have been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, and approximately fifteen million are still undiagnosed. Also, it’s been found that the risk of developing a thyroid disorder is 30% greater for women older than 35. Thyroid disorders can range from small, almost harmless enlargements of the gland to life-threatening cancer. The most popular problems include overproduction or insufficient production of the most important thyroid hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), both of them resulting with many negative effects on the overall health. And the most common reasons for thyroid disorders are genetics, stress, nutritional deficiencies and exposure to environmental toxins.
Since the symptoms of a thyroid disorder can vary greatly, a diagnosis is usually reached after a very thorough review of the patient’s acute symptoms, medical and family history, physical examination and a blood test. The most definitive blood test is called the TSH test and it measures the levels of the hormone responsible for the production of T3 and T4, called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
According to experts, cases of hyperthyroidism, i.e. overactive thyroid gland, are much easier to correctly identify and diagnose, compared to cases of hypothyroidism, i.e. underactive thyroid gland. Still, each of the both conditions include the same symptoms as a big number of other health problems like depression, menopause and chronic fatigue syndrome, which sometimes makes them difficult for early diagnosis. This then leads to a great number of undiagnosed cases, as stated earlier. According to Antonio Bianco, the president of the American Thyroid Association, physicians always need a laboratory confirmation as a definitive diagnostic tool. Although you should be very careful with self-diagnosing, it’s useful to be aware of some of the most common symptoms and schedule an early appointment with your doctor if needed.
According to ATA, symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland include:
- Feeling cold all or much of the time
- Chronic fatigue or muscle pain
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
- Abnormally heavy periods
- Weight gain
If you’re dealing with one or several of these symptoms, a blood test is in order.
Experts say that it’s normal for your blood test to show a TSH level between 0.4 and 4.5 milli-units per liter, but if you’re at 10 mU/L or above, you have hypothyroidism. But between 4.5 and 10 mU/L, you fall into a gray zone called subclinical hypothyroidism.
On the other hand, symptoms of an overactive thyroid gland include the following:
- Eyes bulging
- Feeling hot all the time
- Heart racing
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Vision problems
- Abnormal weight loss
- Increased sweating and/or clammy hands
- Increased bowel movements
- Abnormally light periods
If the blood test results show that your TSH is at zero, that’s a sign of clinical hyperthyroidism, and if your TSH is low but still above zero, you have what’s known as subclinical hyperthyroidism and you might not even experience any of the symptoms.
Since the symptoms associated with thyroid disorders vary greatly from person to person, diagnosis can often be challenging. But if you’re experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible. Diagnosing hypothyroidism early on will provide you with an earlier access to treatment, resulting with a rather significant improvement of your health and vitality.