The Thyroid Void: Is Yours Working Properly?

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Perfectly perched toward the bottom of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple, is your thyroid gland. This butterfly-shaped organ is fairly small, weighing in at about 15 to 25 grams. Although the thyroid isn’t a large organ, it plays a big part in almost every organ system in the body by creating hormones that regulate our metabolism and how our body functions.

The thyroid generally does its job efficiently and quietly behind the scenes, and it’s inconspicuous until it isn’t functioning correctly. Only 12 percent of Americans suffer from thyroid issues, but many of them don’t even know it. According to the American Thyroid Association, about 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition. Thyroid concerns are more problematic for women, as they are five to eight times more likely than men to experience issues.

What Is the Function of the Thyroid?
The thyroid can dictate how we feel and look in a big way. The gland produces many hormones, but two are most prevalent. One is thyroxine, also known as T4, while the other is tri-iodothyronine, commonly referred to as T3. These important hormones manage energy in the body as well as a variety of other biochemical and metabolic functions. Thyroid hormones affect metabolism, growth, development and body temperature, so if they are too high or too low, issues can arise. Proper functioning of the thyroid is necessary so cells can perform at a certain rate and regulate vital functions such as breathing; heart rate; central and peripheral nervous system function; body weight; muscle strength; menstrual cycles; body temperature; cholesterol levels; and metabolism.

It’s smart to educate ourselves, so we can look for warning signs of a problem. A malfunctioning thyroid can cause a wide range of symptoms. Often, people with thyroid disfunction might suffer mentally as well as physically. But how do you know when your thyroid is thwarting you? Possible symptoms might include anxiety; weakness or fatigue; difficulty sleeping; constipation; menstrual irregularity; rapid or irregular heartbeat; increased sensitivity to heat or cold; weight loss or gain; dry skin; dry, irritated, puffy or bulging eyes; and hand tremors
Although symptoms often vary greatly from one person to the next, experiencing one or more symptoms does not mean that you have an underactive or overactive thyroid. If you have been suffering from health issues and your physician has yet to determine what the underlying cause is, ask to have your thyroid checked.

Suspicious of Thyroid Troubles?
If you are having symptoms and questioning whether you have thyroid issues, an answer could be a simple blood test away, but testing and treating for thyroid issues issues often is a complicated process. Your physician will assess possible thyroid problems by asking for your complete medical history, as well as finding out what symptoms you are experiencing. Generally, a complete physical exam will be performed, and the actual size of the thyroid gland will also be gauged by manually feeling around the neck. The doctor will also check for any signs of hypothyroidism, such as dry skin, a puffy appearance and coarse or thinning hair. Lastly, blood work will be performed.

If a problem is found with the thyroid, a primary care physician can manage most treatment plans; however, certain situations may call for a diagnosis and care from an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in the endocrine system and is trained in evaluating thyroid function and staying up to date on current research.

Once someone is diagnosed, a doctor will suggest possible treatments. A patient may be prescribed pure synthetic T4, or levothyroxine sodium. This medication works like the body’s own thyroid hormone, so side effects are rare. Patients begin with a relatively low dose of 50 to 100 micrograms per day, and the physician will adjust the dose until the TSH is in the normal range. Once the right dose is established, TSH levels and possibly T4 levels are measured every 6 to 12 months. Other treatments include drug therapy to block hormone production, radioactive iodine treatment to disable the thyroid, or possible surgery to remove a part of or all of the gland.

Although thyroid issues are generally life-long conditions, with proper treatment and careful management, people can live healthy, normal lives. Patients diagnosed with thyroid disease will benefit from continued medical follow-up to ensure their thyroid is working the way that it should.

To date, there is no indication that patients with thyroid disease are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 or of being more severely affected should they acquire the COVID-19 infection. ■

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