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Thyroid Disease: Are you at Risk?

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Six million people or so in the United States are unaware they have thyroid disease. A simple blood test can answer that question for you.

Thyroid Gland Affected by Thyroid Disease

Fatigue, depression and moodiness are all symptoms. The standard screening method for both hyper- and hypothyroidism is a simple, highly sensitive blood test known as the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) test. It enables doctors to detect even mild cases of thyroid disease long before symptoms appear. Anyone can be struck by thyroid disease, but as in most ailments, there are some factors that could make you more vulnerable:

Are you...

  • Over the age of 60, particularly if you are female
  • Your family has a history of thyroid problems
  • You have another auto-immune disease, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, Addison's disease or pernicious anemia.
  • You have an enlarged thyroid or other members of your family have enlarged thyroids
  • You have high cholesterol
  • You suffer from depression
  • Your hair turned gray before age 40
  • You have dyslexia
  • You have a fraternal twin

Note:  The last three categories are somewhat controversial, but recent research suggests for reasons yet unclear, that people in these categories are more likely to develop thyroid problems.

The two most common thyroid problems occur when the thyroid gland becomes either under-active or over-active. An under-active gland produces inadequate amounts of thyroid hormones, which causes hypothyroidism. An over-active gland makes excessive amounts of hormones, leading to hyperthyroidism. (Hypothyroidism equals under-active thyroid, hyper over-active). Hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism.

Sluggish Thyroid Symptoms

Sluggish Thyroid Symptoms Almost ten million Americans have hypothyroidism. The cause is usually Hashimoto's disease, a condition that occurs when the body's immune system goes haywire and antibodies are released that destroys the thyroid gland. Women are ten times more likely to develop hypothyroidism. Mild hypothyroidism is often unrecognized because there are not a lot of significant problems that a patient feels. As the condition progresses the metabolism slows down and you can begin to feel tired, sluggish, depressed and moody.

You may also develop dry, brittle hair; coarse and itchy skin; intolerance to cold; constipation and, if you are a menstruating woman, heavier periods. Weight gain, however, is NOT a symptom of thyroid disease. A common misperception is that people think if they cannot lose weight they have thyroid disease, but this is not true. In reality, thyroid and weight problems are not synonymous, although it can be a symptom.

Treatment consists of a tablet, usually taken daily consisting of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (also known as T4 because it contains four iodine atoms) to replace what your body is no longer producing. Doctor's usually begin patients on a low dose, increasing it until the patient begins to feel well and the levels of the hormone in your blood return to their normal range. The treatment is life long, but it may need to be adjusted as the effects of aging take place. Your doctor will check your levels regularly to make sure your thyroxine dosage remains right for you.

A "Hyper" Thyroid

This form of thyroid disease affects about three million Americans - an over active thyroid. Symptoms vary from person to person, but may include weight loss, nervousness, irritability, a fast heart rate (100 to 120 beats per minute or higher), difficulty sleeping, muscle weakness, trembling hands, vision problems and intolerance to heat. This form of thyroid disease is most frequently found in women in the 30's and 40's.

Goiter The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave's disease, although hyperthyroidism can also occur when nodules - non-cancerous lumps of cells - form in the thyroid gland and begin to secrete excess hormones. Only rarely is hyperthyroidism caused by cancerous growths on the thyroid gland. A common symptom is a goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland that appears as an abnormal swelling in the neck. People with Grave's disease may also develop "bulging" eyes, a condition known medically as exophthalmos. The eyeballs are pushed forward because the soft tissue lining the eye sockets has swollen.

Treatment for hyperthyroidism is a bit more complex than its counterpart, hypothyroidism. Surgery is one option, but if your doctor suggests it, he or she needs to be sure it is necessary. You may wish to get a second opinion as there are other alternatives that are less risky and more cost effective.

One treatment is radioactive iodine therapy. Patients are given a dose of radioactive iodine that essentially shuts down their thyroid gland's ability to manufacture hormones. Since the thyroid cells are the only cells that can absorb iodine, radioactive iodine therapy does not damage other areas of the body and has absolutely no other side effects. In most cases, a single dose of radioactive iodine is enough. The medication is taken by mouth and requires no hospitalization. Of course, you then need thyroxine to restore thyroid hormones.

The medications used to treat hyperthyroidism are another option but these, although effective, have side effects. Many are allergic to the drugs and develop a red, itchy skin rash or swollen, stiff joints. A patient needs close monitoring while on this type of medication. Out of the three options, most doctors prefer the radioactive iodine as the first line of treatment.

Thyroid disease should not be underestimated and is very treatable. When left untreated, it can damage the heart, liver, eyes and other important organs.

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