Thyroid mysteries revealed

January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Many of you will likely be wondering what and where the thyroid is.

It’s certainly not a body part that is covered in any kind of detail at school or in the press. However, it has an enormous influence on everyone’s appearance, comfort and sense of well-being.

It affects your sleep patterns, your weight, your memory, your fertility, how tired or achy you feel, how warm you feel, your voice, skin, hair and nails.

Thyroid disorders are some of the most under-diagnosed health problems around as people often assume that the symptoms are because they are just working too hard, stressed out, depressed or getting old.

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in your neck in front of your windpipe that secretes chemical hormones into your blood stream.

The hormones control metabolism, or how quickly your body burns energy and reacts.

Several disorders

There are several thyroid disorders such as underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), thyroid nodules or growths and cancer.

The most common disorder, the underactive thyroid, is generally associated with a slowing down of the body. Patients tend to feel more tired, weak and cold. They often have sore muscles, the sensation of pins and needles, a slow heart rate and sleep a lot.

They can experience constipation and weight gain. Such patients can have decreased appetite and yet find it very difficult to lose weight.

Furthermore, patients can experience problems in concentration, memory loss and depression.

Other symptoms include dry and pale skin, thinning hair, brittle nails, a hoarse voice and snoring. Sometimes patients exhibit a change in facial expression such as puffiness.

Female patients can have problems in becoming pregnant and an increased chance of miscarriage. They also have heavy, irregular or extended menstrual periods.

The underactive thyroid can be caused by an autoimmune disease in which antibodies in your body attack the thyroid cells instead of attacking bacteria and viruses.

Other people are born with hypothyroidism as their thyroid fails to develop properly.

Some medicines used to treat other diseases can lead to hypothyroidism.

In the United States, it is estimated that 0.1-2 per cent of the population have underactive thyroid and as many as 4-10 per cent have a mildly underactive thyroid.

Risk factors

Risk factors include family history, increased age, being female and pregnancy. The Caucasian and Asian races are also at a higher risk of this disease.

Underactive thyroid can be diagnosed via a simple blood test known as thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH.

Treatment consists of thyroid hormone replacement which is taken as a tablet and boosts the level of thyroid hormones in your body.

Many of the symptoms of underactive thyroid develop slowly and it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly what has changed in your life.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, the important thing is to go to your doctor and get tested. The good news is that once diagnosed, your doctor can quickly have you on track to recovery and feeling better.

Dr. Diane Hislop-Chestnut is an internist based in Grand Cayman.