Ever felt excessively tired for no good reason? Finding it difficult to lose weight despite a healthy diet and exercise regime? Struggling with depression or hair loss? These are but a few symptoms of thyroid disease. It can effect anyone at any time and is so insidious, its effects are often ignored.
But, what is the thyroid gland?
It is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, and mostly, it just gets on with its job of governing your body’s metabolism, in collaboration with your hypothalamus and your pituitary gland, both located in your brain and known as your endocrine system.
The challenge is that this system doesn’t get the same attention as, for instance, your circulatory system or the digestive system which display obvious symptoms when something goes wrong. Ever heard of irritable bowel syndrome? When you’re faced with extreme and recurrent abdominal pains and diarrhoea you know something is wrong.
The 411 on thyroid disease
Well, there are different types of thyroid dysfunctions: (i) Hypothyroidism, (ii) Hyperthyroidism, and (iii) malignant thyroids. Below is some insight into the two main types that are common:
Hypothyroidism – The slug
Hypothyroidism is where the thyroid gland is under-functioning (sluggish). It is caused by a variety of things, including autoimmune disease, treatment for hyperthyroidism, thyroid surgery, radiation therapy, and some medications. Less frequently, it could be caused by congenital disease, a pituitary disorder, pregnancy, or an iodine deficiency.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of an under functioning thyroid (Hypothyroidism) are a little less obvious, and are easily confused with the results of stress, or other lifestyle diseases. They include fatigue, weakness, weight gain, elevated cholesterol, hair loss or coarse, dry hair, muscle cramps, and an intolerance for cold conditions.
If hypothyroidism isn’t treated, it becomes worse – and you maybe become forgetful, your thought processes may be slow, or you may be depressed. It could also lead to heart problems, mental health issues, and nerve damage (called peripheral neuropathy), as well as infertility among women, and birth defects among children.
Untreated, it could lead to a condition known as myxedema, which is rare, but life-threatening, as it includes low blood pressure, decreased breathing, decreased body temperature, unresponsiveness and even a coma.
Hyperthyroidism – The over-zealous
Hyperthyroidism is where the thyroid gland is over-functioning (over active). This condition sees the body producing excess hormones, which then impact on how the rest of your body functions. There are different types of hyperthyroidism, falling under diagnoses Graves’ disease, hyper functioning thyroid nodules, and thyroiditis.
Hyperthyroidism tends to run in families, and it tends to be more common among women than among men.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of an over-functioning thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, are a little easier to detect, and include fatigue, hand tremors, mood swings, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, dry skin and insomnia, and even sudden weight loss.
Left untreated, it could lead to heart problems, brittle bones, poor eye sight, red swollen skin, and even thyrotoxic crisis, which includes a rapid pulse, fever, and even delirium. It’s clear that this needs to be treated immediately, with ongoing care required once diagnosis has been made.
Get tested to avoid more serious conditions
It’s easy to see how hypothyroidism can be confused with many other illnesses that affect South African men and women, but it is imperative that you work with your doctor to identify links between symptoms. All it takes is a simple blood test that will provide diagnosis. Treatment for hypothyroidism is non-invasive and affordable – and essential to quality of life.
It is particularly important for women of childbearing age to understand the implications of hypothyroidism, as it can severely impact the development of unborn children. If undiagnosed during pregnancy and immediately after birth, children affected by hypothyroidism do not develop (mentally or physically) as they should, occasionally leading to catastrophic outcomes.