Stick Your Neck Out for a Thyroid Check

For such a small gland, the thyroid in the neck can cause a lot of problems. That's because the thyroid gland releases hormones that affect almost all of your body's functions. As a result, thyroid disease produces such a wide range of symptoms, from weight gain to high cholesterol to infertility.

The most common thyroid diseases occur when the thyroid gland releases either too little or too much thyroid hormone.

Even though a simple test can be given to figure out how much thyroid hormone you are producing, many people do not realize that their thyroid gland is responsible for symptoms such as fatigue, if they have an underactive thyroid, or a rapid heartbeat, if they have an overactive thyroid.

Some people may even have subclinical thyroid disease, where they have subtle symptoms that are very rarely properly diagnosed.

Below, Carlos R. Hamilton, Jr., MD, president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the executive vice president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, discusses the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease.

What does the thyroid hormone do in the body?

The thyroid hormone is necessary for almost all of the body's chemical processes to proceed the way they are supposed to. The body needs it to allow cells to consume oxygen and generate energy within the cells. The cells are continually regenerating, making new proteins, storing glucose, making new enzymes and synthesizing DNA. When there is too little or much thyroid hormone, these processes don't proceed properly. Almost any tissue in the body is affected by the thyroid gland and by thyroid hormone.

Tissues that tend to use more oxygen tend to be affected more, so the central nervous system, the heart, the bones, the skin and the muscles are all very significantly affected by either too much or too little thyroid hormone. When thyroid hormone is not present, the skin, for example, is not able to replace itself, and it becomes thin. With too much thyroid hormone, you might break down proteins too quickly,causing muscle weakness.

What is hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism means there is not enough thyroid hormone in one's system. Hyperthyroidism is just the opposite; it means that there is too much. Hashimoto's disease may cause the thyroid gland to become underactive or enlarged over time. Treatments for hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine, radiation therapy for head and neck cancers, and thyroid surgery, as well as certain medications can also cause hypothyroidism. Grave's disease is the common cause of hyperthyroidism, though it may also be caused by thyroid nodules and thyroid inflammation.

Who are these conditions most likely to affect?

Thyroid diseases, in general, are more common in women than they are in men. They are more common right after pregnancy. They are more common in older people. Equally important is one's family history. If people in your family have an overactive or an underactive thyroid, then you would be considered at higher risk. So, knowing if your family members have had thyroid disease and making sure your doctor knows that is very helpful.

What are some of the major symptoms of an overactive thyroid gland?

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