Who Should Be Tested?
Everyone should be screened for thyroid dysfunction every five years, beginning at age 35. People with symptoms or risk factors may need tests more often. Hypothyroidism more frequently affects women over age 60. Hyperthyroidism is also more common in women and in people over 60. A family history raises your risk of either disorder.
Thyroid Neck Check
A careful look in the mirror may help you spot an enlarged thyroid that needs a doctor's attention. Tip your head back, take a drink of water, and as you swallow, examine your neck below the Adam's apple and above the collarbone. Look for bulges or protrusions, then repeat the process a few times. See a doctor promptly if you see a bulge or lump.
Diagnosing Thyroid Disorders
If your doctor suspects a thyroid disorder, a blood test can help provide an answer. This test measures the level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), a kind of master hormone that regulates the work of the thyroid gland. If TSH is high, it typically means that your thyroid function is too low (hypothyroid). If TSH is low, then it generally means the thyroid is overactive (hyperthyroid.) Your doctor may also check levels of other thyroid hormones in your blood. In some cases, imaging studies are used and biopsies are taken to evaluate a thyroid abnormality.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto's disease. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid gland. The result is damage to the thyroid, preventing it from producing enough hormones. Hashimoto's disease tends to run in families.
Other Causes of Hypothyroidism
In some cases, hypothyroidism results from a problem with the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the brain. This gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid to do its job. If your pituitary gland does not produce enough TSH, your levels of thyroid hormones will fall. Other causes of hypothyroidism include temporary inflammation of the thyroid or medications that affect thyroid function.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' disease. This is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid gland and triggers the release of high levels of thyroid hormones. One of the hallmarks of Graves' disease is a visible and uncomfortable swelling behind the eyes.
Other Causes of Hyperthyroidism
Hyperthyroidism can also result from thyroid nodules. These are lumps that develop inside the thyroid and sometimes begin producing thyroid hormones. Large lumps may create a noticeable goiter. Smaller lumps can be detected with ultrasound.
Thyroid Disorder Complications
When left untreated, hypothyroidism can raise your cholesterol levels and make you more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. In severe cases, very low levels of thyroid hormones can trigger a loss of consciousness and life-threatening drop in body temperature. Untreated hyperthyroidism can cause serious heart problems and brittle bones.
If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, your doctor will most likely prescribe thyroid hormones in the form of a pill. This usually leads to noticeable improvements within a couple of weeks. Long-term treatment can result in more energy, lower cholesterol levels, and gradual weight loss. Most people with hypothyroidism will need to take thyroid hormones for the rest of their lives.
The most common treatment for hyperthyroidism is antithyroid medication, which aims to lower the amount of hormones produced by the thyroid. The condition may eventually go away, but many people need to remain on medication for the long term. Other drugs may be given to reduce symptoms such as rapid pulse and tremors. Another option is radioactive iodine, which destroys the thyroid gland over the course of 6 to 18 weeks. Once the gland is destroyed, or removed by surgery, most patients must begin taking thyroid hormones in pill form.
Surgery for Thyroid Disorders
Removing the thyroid gland can cure hyperthyroidism, but the procedure is only recommended if antithyroid drugs don't work, or if there is a large goiter. Surgery may also be recommended for patients with thyroid nodules. Once the thyroid is removed, most patients require daily supplements of thyroid hormones to avoid developing hypothyroidism.
What About Thyroid Cancer?
Thyroid cancer is uncommon and is among the least deadly. The main symptom is a lump or swelling in the neck, but less than 10 percent of thyroid nodules turn out to be cancerous. When thyroid cancer is diagnosed, it is most often treated with surgery followed by radioactive iodine therapy or external radiation therapy.