In light of talk show giant Oprah Winfrey's recent announcement of her thyroid condition, many women may begin asking their doctors more about the health conditions linked to thyroid disorders and whether they may be experiencing thyroid trouble as well.
Such questions may not be off base; in fact, data from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists suggest that up to one in four women will develop permanent thyroid problems during their lifetime, especially as they approach menopause.
In the United States, approximately 5 percent of adults have hypothyroidism and 1.3 percent have hyperthyroidism. But women are much more likely than men to have thyroid problems; they are approximately 4 to 8 times as likely to have hypothyroidism, and the incidence increases with age.
These problems can have major implications, as the hormones secreted by this small, butterfly-shaped gland located just below the Adam's apple have broad effects on metabolism — everything from heart rate to how quickly you burn calories.
It is important to remember, however, that the vast majority of cases of hypothyroidism and about half of hyperthyroidism cases are "subclinical," meaning they are able to be detected with laboratory tests, but patients may not have any symptoms.
Below is more information on the thyroid conditions that women can experience, as well as the symptoms that generally accompany each:
As the name suggests, hypothyroidism is a condition in which the body lacks sufficient thyroid hormone. As this hormone is integral in the proper function of the body's metabolism, those who do not have enough of it can experience fatigue and weakness.
Some other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
Weight gain or increased difficulty losing weight
Coarse, dry hair and skin, and possible hair loss
Inability to tolerate cold conditions
Muscle cramps or frequent muscle aches
Depression and irritability
Abnormal menstrual cycles
Unfortunately, the symptoms are often vague or nonspecific -- which means they could be due to other causes. Thus, the diagnosis of hypothyroidism can be difficult.
However, hypothyroidism can usually be diagnosed through a simple blood test. And in many cases, treatment can be as simple as a small pill, taken once a day. This pill is a synthetic thyroid hormone that acts to restore adequate hormone levels, shifting your body back into normal gear.
The direct opposite of hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the levels of thyroid hormone in the body are too high. These high levels may be the result of any number of factors, but regardless of it origins, many of the symptoms of this condition are the same:
Unexplained weight loss
Heart palpitations or a racing pulse
Inability to tolerate hot conditions
Nervousness or insomnia
Light or absent menstrual periods
Trembling hands and muscle weakness
Warm, moist skin
Treatments for hyperthyroidism vary according to the severity of the condition and its underlying causes. In some cases, doctors choose to treat only the symptoms of the condition; in others, they may use anti-thyroid drugs to block the effects of the hormone, or they may even use radioactive iodine treatments to reduce the number of hormone-secreting cells in the thyroid gland itself.
For more information, you can check out the following resources on the Web:
MayoClinic.com has a comprehensive resource page on hypothyroidism.
EndocrineWeb.com features information on a number of thyroid conditions, including both hypo- and hyperthyroidism.
The American Thyroid Association features a comprehensive online booklet outlining thyroid disorders and steps those suffering from such conditions can take to cope.
The National Institutes of Health offers a comprehensive database of information and links to additional resources on thyroid conditions.
The Hormone Foundation provides a number of overviews specific to thyroid conditions, as well as guides to help pregnant women dealing with thyroid disease.