Have you ever wondered why there are days you feel like a couch potato and are too tired to move and when you step onto the bathroom scale, your weight seems to be ballooning out of control and you can’t figure out why? Inactivity, illness, depression and/or age might all be factors, but a thorough medical checkup might reveal quite another reason.
In contrast to what seems a general slowdown, a change in your usual vitality may take quite another form: you may find yourself inexplicably anxious and losing weight in spite of eating normally. You might even notice your hair thinning and experience a subtle tremor of your hands or even on occasion, feel your heart racing. You might also feel palpitations-an irregular series of heart beats-that make you feel as though a fish is jumping in your chest. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, one answer may be your thyroid. That butterfly-like little gland wedged between your collarbone and neck produces hormones that influence many of the metabolic processes in your body and can affect your heart.
If your thyroid is significantly out of whack, your body will exhibit the tell-tale signs of either an underactive or an overactive gland. Disorders range from a harmless goiter (enlarged gland) to a more serious thyroid cancer. The most common thyroid disorders are not malignant, but are caused by an abnormal production of thyroid hormones. Too much thyroid hormones result in hyperthyroidism. Insufficient hormone levels lead to hypothyroidism.
The symptoms related to both can be unpleasant and even troublesome but most thyroid disorders can be managed with medications, if properly diagnosed and treated. On the other hand, untreated significant thyroid disorders can have life-threatening consequences and even prove fatal.
Hyperthyroidism and what to watch for:
According to the American Thyroid Association, an overproduction of thyroid hormones causes the body’s functions to speed up. Aside from nervousness, a racing heart beat and tremors other common symptoms may include irritability, increased sweating, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, thinning of skin, fine brittle hair and muscle weakness. Frequent bowel movements may result as well as unexplained weight loss despite a good appetite. For women, menstrual flow may lighten and menstrual periods may occur less often. Since hyperthyroidism increases your metabolism, many individuals initially feel very energetic. However, as the hyperthyroidism progresses, the body breaks down, so becoming tired more easily occurs more often.
Hypothyroidism and what to watch for:
When thyroid hormone levels are too low, your metabolism slows down. Typically, the hypothyroid patient feels colder, tires more easily, has drier skin, and often suffers from constipation. Brain fog, forgetfulness and depression are often present as the disease progresses. Because the symptoms are so varied and may develop slowly, a change in baseline functioning should prompt a medical visit with appropriate blood tests. One test is the TSH which measures the amount of T4 (thyroxene) that your body produces. For example, an abnormally low T4 amount means you have an underactive thyroid.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, It is an autoimmune disorder in which antibodies form against thyroid tissue producing chronic inflammation which gradually destroys the gland. This condition also tends to run in families. Over time Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis impairs the thyroid’s ability to produce thyroid hormones, leading to a gradual decline in function and eventually a “burnt out” gland. Although Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis occurs most commonly in middle-aged women, it can occur at any age, and can also affect men, and children.
Thyroid nodules, which are accumulation in the gland of thyroid gland products, calcium and blood vessels, are very common. Most are harmless. Nevertheless, your doctor should palpate your gland annually, especially if you are female, and if nodules are present, an ultrasound examination of your thyroid is in order. If nodules are over a centimeter in diameter and look suspicious, a biopsy is in order, which an endocrinologist can perform in the office.
Dr. Legato advises vigilance especially if patients have a family history of certain thyroid cancers. Appropriate lab tests should be done periodically to rule out these cancers but patients may be asymptomatic for a long time, so careful assessment and monitoring of suspected thyroid gland abnormalities are in order. Remember, whenever you schedule your physical, have your thyroid gland function checked. You won’t regret it.
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