Thyroid disorders are very common. In the United States alone, an estimated 20 million people are living with some type of thyroid disorder. Unfortunately, many of them don’t know it: As many as 60% of people with thyroid disorders are undiagnosed. These undiagnosed people may be at risk of infertility, cardiovascular disease and other complications of untreated thyroid disorders.
These scary statistics may make you wonder if you’re one of the millions of Americans with an undiagnosed thyroid disorder. Read on to learn more about these disorders and how they’re diagnosed and treated.
Overview of Thyroid Disorder
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck. This gland produces important hormones — including triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control your body’s metabolism. They affect how fast your body burns calories, how fast your heart beats and other metabolic functions. Thyroid hormones even play a role in controlling your body temperature.
In people with hypothyroidism, also called an underactive thyroid, the thyroid doesn’t make enough of these hormones. This slows down the body’s metabolism. People with hyperthyroidism, also called an overactive thyroid, have the opposite problem. Their thyroids make too much hormone, and their metabolisms speed up. Both conditions can have a significant impact on your health.
There are many reasons why your thyroid might make too much or not enough hormones. If you have certain autoimmune diseases, such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s, your immune system may attack your thyroid and affect the amount of hormones it produces. Thyroid problems may also be caused by pregnancy, iodine deficiency and certain medications.
Thyroid disease is more common in women than in men. During their lifetimes, one in eight women will develop some type of thyroid problem. You may be at an increased risk for thyroid problems if you have a family history of these conditions. Some chronic illnesses, such as type 1 diabetes or celiac disease, are also risk factors.
Symptoms of Thyroid Disorder
Thyroid disorders can cause a wide variety of symptoms, which makes them hard to identify. Since the symptoms may develop slowly over the years, you may just assume they’re caused by aging. The symptoms of thyroid disorders may also be mistaken for many other health problems.
People with hypothyroidism may feel tired or weak for no reason. They may also notice weight gain, dry skin, thinning hair, memory problems or a slowed heart rate. If your thyroid is underactive, you may also find that you get cold more easily.
People with hyperthyroidism may lose weight without trying. Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include anxiety, a pounding heart, shaky hands, trouble sleeping and an increased appetite. You could also get hot more easily.
If you notice any symptoms of thyroid problems, see your doctor. They may recommend a thyroid test.
How to Test for Thyroid Disorder
If your doctor suspects you have a thyroid disorder, they may recommend a variety of thyroid tests. To see how well your thyroid is working, your doctor may order one or more blood tests. These may include tests for:
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH): TSH tells your thyroid how much hormone to make. If your TSH level is too high, you could have hypothyroidism. A too-low TSH level could indicate hyperthyroidism.
- T4: This test looks at the level of thyroxine in your blood. High T4 levels could mean you have hyperthyroidism, while low T4 levels may suggest you have hypothyroidism. Many illnesses and medications can change the amount of T4 in your blood.
- T3: This test measures how much triiodothyronine is in your blood. Some people with thyroid problems have normal T4 levels, so this second thyroid test can help doctors make a diagnosis.
- Thyroid Antibodies: When your immune system attacks your thyroid gland, it makes thyroid antibodies. This blood test can help your doctor diagnose autoimmune thyroid problems, such as Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s.
Another option is to do a thyroid test at home. You can buy thyroid testing kits online or at your local pharmacy. These kits provide all the supplies you need to collect a sample at home. Generally, you’ll be asked to collect a small amount of blood from a simple finger prick. Then, you mail your sample to a laboratory for testing. Some at-home thyroid tests, like the Lets Get Checked Thyroid Test, even have doctors call you to explain your results.
If your blood tests indicate thyroid problems, your doctor may sometimes recommend other tests to determine the underlying cause. For example, they may recommend imaging tests, such as an ultrasound or a thyroid scan. If you have a lump on your thyroid, they may want to perform a biopsy to see if it’s cancerous or non-cancerous.
Treatment Options for Thyroid Disorder
If you find out that you have a thyroid problem, don’t worry: There are many treatment options available. The goal of these treatments is to return your thyroid hormones to a normal level. Your doctor can recommend an appropriate treatment based on the type of thyroid disorder you have.
Hypothyroidism can be treated with levothyroxine, a synthetic hormone that replaces your missing thyroid hormones. This medication can help you feel better quickly, but it may take time for your doctor to determine the right dose of this medication. You may need to take this medication for the rest of your life.
Hyperthyroidism is harder to treat, but there are still many treatment options available. Radioactive iodine treatment is the most popular option, and it’s used to disable your thyroid gland. Other treatments for hyperthyroidism include medications that keep the thyroid from producing hormones. Sometimes, doctors may recommend surgically removing some or all of your thyroid. As a result of these treatments, you may develop hypothyroidism.
Get Tested for Thyroid Disorder
Thyroid disorders are common, but many people who have these conditions don’t know it. If you’re experiencing any signs of symptoms of a thyroid disorder, see your doctor for a thyroid test or perform a thyroid test at home. Rest assured that if you have a thyroid disorder, doctors can offer many treatments to help you feel better.