Your Thyroid Gland
What It Is
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland found in the front part of your neck, below the Adam’s apple and above the collarbone. It produces hormones critical to how key organs work, including the heart, liver, brain, kidneys and skin.
Thyroid disease affects 27 million people in the U.S., more than half of whom are undiagnosed. Women are five times more likely to be affected by thyroid problems than men.
What Can Go Wrong
A malfunctioning thyroid can produce either too much thyroid hormone or not enough.
Overproduction of thyroid hormone is a condition called hyperthyroidism and can be marked by speeding up of some or many bodily functions. Symptoms can include but are not limited to:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Weight loss
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Diarrhea or frequent bowel movements
- Heat intolerance
An autoimmune disease (one in which a person’s own immune system works to harm its own cells) known as Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. People with Graves’ disease have thyroids that produce more thyroid hormone than needed. The disease most frequently appears in people younger than 40.
Illustration Courtesy of Don Bliss
Underproduction of thyroid hormone is a condition called hypothyroidism and can be marked by the slowing of some or many bodily functions. Among possible symptoms are:
- Weight gain
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
- Intolerance to cold
An autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. People with Hashimoto’s disease have a chronically inflamed thyroid gland, which damages and reduces the ability of the gland to function properly. Hashimoto’s disease appears most frequently in people age 40 to 60.
Two common and frequently visual indicators of thyroid problems are nodules and goiters.
A thyroid nodule is any abnormal growth of thyroid cells into a lump; they are common and do not necessarily present any problems. When a thyroid nodule is detected during an examination, testing may be ordered to determine that the nodule is benign.
Having thyroid nodules does not necessarily impair how the thyroid gland functions, but they can pose problems.
Similarly, a goiter is the abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland itself. Like nodules, having a goiter does not necessarily result in thyroid gland issues, though goiters are common among people with either Graves’ or Hashimoto’s disease. A goiter may cause the front of a person’s neck to look swollen.
Because the symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism are similar to those of other diseases or problems, thyroid disease is not always quickly recognized. However, because it frequently runs in the family, people with a family history of thyroid disease should become familiar with the symptoms and see a physician should they occur. Likewise, anyone experiencing recurring symptoms should see a physician.
The most common means of diagnosing a thyroid problem is through a thyroid-stimulating hormone blood test (TSH).
How You Can Be Treated
People diagnosed with thyroid disease can receive different types of treatment.
Drug therapy, or use of thyroid hormone replacement pills, is common for both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
For some patients with hyperthyroidism, physicians may recommend treatment with radioactive iodine, which in essence kills the thyroid gland and typically leads to permanent need for and use of thyroid hormone replacement pills.
Sometimes, the thyroid gland is surgically removed, which, as with radioactive iodine treatment, creates a permanent condition of hypothyroidism, meaning lifetime use of thyroid hormone replacement pills.
Thyroid cancer is one of the fastest-growing cancers in men and women in the United States, with about 45,000 news cases reported in 2010. Although there is no early detection possible for thyroid cancer, it has a low death rate relative to other types of cancers.
A common symptom is feeling a lump, a thyroid nodule, in the throat and having tests to determine if the nodule is cancerous. Other symptoms may be a tight feeling in the neck, swollen lymph nodes, hoarseness or pain in the throat or neck that won’t subside.
People with thyroid cancer most often have their thyroid gland removed, either surgically or via radioactive iodine treatment. The five-year survival rate for people with thyroid cancer is 97 percent.
If you are diagnosed with a thyroid disease, condition or cancer, your physician will discuss the different options available.