What is the thyroid?
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. This gland makes thyroid hormone that travels in your blood to all parts of your body. The thyroid hormone controls your body’s metabolism in many ways, including how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats.
Thyroid disorders for the most part are treatable; however, untreated thyroid disease can produce serious results in other parts of the body. Improved public awareness and understanding of thyroid disorders will enable patients and their families to cope more effectively with the sometimes disturbing course of thyroid illness. In this way individuals will also be better equipped to play a role in alerting their physicians to a suspected thyroid condition that may otherwise be difficult to diagnose in the sometimes slowly developing initial phases.
The thyroid gland
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It weighs only about 20 grams. However, the hormones it secretes are essential to all growth and metabolism. The gland is a regulator of all body functions. Thyroid disorders are found in 0.8-5% of the population and are 4 to 7 times more common in women.
Types of thyroid disease
There are many types of thyroid disease. However, the main conditions present in most thyroid illnesses are hypothyroidism (thyroid under activity) and hyperthyroidism (thyroid over activity).
Thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer
Thyroid nodules are common and treatable but should always be investigated since a small proportion of them are cancerous. The majority of thyroid cancers have a favourable prognostic and require a multidisciplinary approach (endocrinologist, surgeon, nuclear medicine specialist and sometimes oncologist). In the past years there has been a rise in the number of thyroid cancers being identified. There has been no change however, in the mortality rate.
Symptom Losing or Gaining Weight
Changes in weight can signal an abnormal function of the thyroid gland. Low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) can cause weight gain, while unexpected weight loss can signal that too many thyroid hormones are being produced (hyperthyroidism). Hypothyroidism is much more common than hyperthyroidism.
- Goiter: A general term for thyroid swelling. Goiters can be harmless, or can represent iodine deficiency or a condition associated with thyroid inflammation called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
- Thyroiditis: Inflammation of the thyroid, usually from a viral infection or autoimmune condition. Thyroiditis can be painful, or have no symptoms at all.
- Hyperthyroidism: Excessive thyroid hormone production. Hyperthyroidism is most often caused by Graves disease or an overactive thyroid nodule.
- Hypothyroidism: Low production of thyroid hormone. Thyroid damage caused by autoimmune disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism .
- Graves disease: An autoimmune condition in which the thyroid is overstimulated, causing hyperthyroidism.
- Thyroid cancer: An uncommon form of cancer, thyroid cancer is usually curable. Surgery, radiation, and hormone treatments may be used to treat thyroid cancer.
- Thyroid nodule: A small abnormal mass or lump in the thyroid gland. Thyroid nodules are extremely common. Few are cancerous. They may secrete excess hormones, causing hyperthyroidism, or cause no problems.
- Thyroid storm: A rare form of hyperthyroidism in which extremely high thyroid hormone levels cause severe illness.
How do thyroid problems affect women?
Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease. One in eight women will develop thyroid problems during her lifetime.1 In women, thyroid diseases can cause:
- Problems with your menstrual period. Your thyroid helps control your menstrual cycle. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can make your periods very light, heavy, or irregular. Thyroid disease also can cause your periods to stop for several months or longer, a condition called amenorrhea. If your body’s immune system causes thyroid disease, other glands, including your ovaries, may be involved. This can lead to early menopause (before age 40).
- Problems getting pregnant. When thyroid disease affects the menstrual cycle, it also affects ovulation. This can make it harder for you to get pregnant.
- Problems during pregnancy. Thyroid problems during pregnancy can cause health problems for the mother and the baby.
Sometimes, symptoms of thyroid problems are mistaken for menopause symptoms. Thyroid disease, especially hypothyroidism, is more likely to develop after menopause.
Who Should Be Tested?
The American Thyroid Association recommends that everyone be screened yearly for thyroid disease starting at age 35. You may need more frequent tests if you have symptoms or risk factors for thyroid disease. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are most common in women over the age of 60. A family history of thyroid disease increases your risk of developing thyroid conditions.