Thyroid: What is Its Purpose and How Can We Tell If Something is Wrong?

We all have heard the talk about the thyroid and we know that if it is not functioning correctly we can feel pretty bad. But do you really know why we have a thyroid, what its function is and how to tell if something can be wrong with it? Most people don’t.

The thyroid is actually a gland, a small butterfly shaped gland. It is located in the front of the neck below the voice box. It contains a gel-like substance and is surrounded by a single layer of cells. This gland produces a hormone. This hormone helps regulate growth, metabolism and energy levels.

Thyroid problems are common. But most of the time symptoms will appear gradually over time. This makes it easier for them to misdiagnosed. The three most common thyroid problems are: under-active thyroid, overactive thyroid and thyroid nodules.

The under-active thyroid is also called Hypothyroidism. In this condition, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland. Usually the levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is elevated. A rare patient with an under active thyroid may have normal or low TSH due to a pituitary condition.

Symptoms of Hypothyroidism can be any of the following or the combination of the following:

Fatigue or lack of energy
Weight gain
Feeling cold
Dry skin and hair
Heavy menstrual periods
Slowed thinking

Treatment is simple. Thyroid hormones are given daily in pill form. The symptoms usually clear up in a few months. But the patient will routinely have to have blood tests to check their TSH levels and usually have to stay on medication for life.

Over-active thyroid is also called hyperthyroidism. The most common cause of this is Grave’s disease. When Grave’s disease occurs the body’s immune systems over stimulates the thyroid. When you have hyperthyroidism the level of your free T4 hormone is elevated and your TSH level is low.

Symptoms of an over-active thyroid can be any of the following or the combination of the following:

Jitteriness, shaking and nervousness
Rapid heart beat or palpitations
Feeling hot
Weight loss
Fatigue, feeling tired
More frequent bowel movements
Shorter, lighter menstrual periods

One may also have eye problems such as irritation, double vision, etc. When this occurs it is called Graves’ Ophthalmopathy.

Sometimes doctors first may suspect cancer or heart problems in patients who are actually suffering from Hyperthyroidism.

A thyroid scan should be performed to make sure that the hyperthyroidism is actually being caused by Grave’s Disease and not some other condition.

Treatment is usually radioactive iodine. This is a radiation treatment that will destroy some of the thyroid. The main side effect is that the patient may begin suffering from under-active thyroid. Sometimes medicines are given. But they have to be taken six to twelve months before symptoms improve and when stopped 60 to 80% of the patients suffer a relapse. As a last resort surgery may be performed to remove part of the thyroid.

Finally the last common problem with one’s thyroid gland is Thyroid nodules or lumps

These nodules are fairly common and are usually harmless. Only about 4% are ever cancerous. Yet, further testing should be performed if you have them.

The testing is usually a fine needle aspiration biopsy. This is a simple and quick procedure that can performed in most doctor’s office. Even if the biopsy is found not be cancerous you should repeat it in 6 to 12 months to make sure no cancer appears.

If it does come back as being cancerous or if it is causing you problems with breathing or swallowing it should be surgical removed.

Our thyroid gland is very important. As you can see, if the thyroid hormones are not working correctly, it can cause us some problems. Your doctor can tell you how routinely your thyroid hormones should be tested. Of course, if thyroid problems run in your family, you should tell your doctor. As you know, heredity plays a part in everything about our health.

So next time you look at your neck in the mirror, you will know where you thyroid is located and just how important it is for it to function properly.

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