The thyroid is a neck gland responsible for producing hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. It is susceptible to disorders both minor, such as an enlarged gland, and more serious, like cancer. The most common diseases result in an imbalance of thyroid hormone, either too much or too little. Fortunately, most thyroid disorders are easily managed.
Most thyroid disorders involve the abnormal production of hormones that control metabolism. Hypothyroidism is the result of insufficient thyroid hormones, causing the metabolism to slow down and leading to low energy levels. Symptoms include fatigue, constipation, dry skin, puffiness in the face, muscle aches and pains, sensitivity to cold, and weight gain. It is especially dangerous to infants, as it can cause mental retardation and stunted growth. There are a number of causes, including:
- Hashimoto’s disease. An autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks healthy thyroid tissue. Thyroid gland removal. Patients who have had their thyroid gland removed surgically or chemically are at risk for hypothyroidism.
- Too much iodine. Exposure to excessive amounts of iodine, as found in certain cold and sinus medications and contrast dyes given before X-rays, can lead to a greater risk.
- Lithium. There may be a correlation between this drug and hypothyroidism.
Conversely, hyperthyroidism occurs when there is an overabundance of thyroid hormones. An overactive thyroid causes the metabolism to speed up, leading to a rapid or irregular heartbeat, sweating, nervousness, irritability, sensitivity to heat, and weight loss. Conditions that cause hyperthyroidism include:
- Grave’s disease. A disorder that causes an overproduction of thyroid hormone.
- Toxic adenomas. Nodules in the gland that secrete hormones, resulting in excessive chemical production.
- Thyroiditis. An inflamed gland that leaks excess hormones into the bloodstream. This condition is usually temporary.
Other rare conditions – goiters, pituitary gland disorders, cancers of the thyroid gland – can also cause too much or too little thyroid hormone.
Treatment for thyroid conditions will depend on which disorder you are diagnosed with. Hypothyroidism is usually treated medically with synthetic hormones, while hyperthyroidism often requires beta-blockers, methimazole, iodide, or radioactive iodine therapy. It may also be corrected surgically, if nodules or goiters are the cause.
Thyroid disorders are serious, but easily managed. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the prognosis is excellent; there are very few long-term side effects of the disease.