Health A to Z

Thyroid disorders

How to tell if you're at risk.

Thyroid disorders causes, symptoms, and treatments

If you’re always tired, packing on the pounds and chronically constipated, you could have thyroid disease,a medical condition that impairs the function of the thyroid, the butterfly shaped gland in the neck that produces the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) and influences every organ, tissue and cell in the body. Thyroid hormones are also essential for growth and metabolism. There are many types of thyroid diseases, but the main ones are hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, and hyperthyroidism, or an  overactive thyroid. Thyroid disease affects one in 20 Canadians, and the disease is about five to seven times more common in women. When thyroid disease goes untreated, it can lead to serious health consequences, such as infertility, osteoporosis and heart disease.

Thyroid disorder causes Hypothyroidism is commonly caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which occurs when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. A less common cause is postpartum thyroiditis, where a woman experiences a month or two of hyperthyroidism after childbirth, followed by several months of hypothyroidism.  The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is the autoimmune disorder Graves Disease, which develops when the immune system overstimulates the thyroid gland to make too much hormone. Too much iodine can also be a cause of hyperthyroidism.

Thyroid disorder symptoms Signs of thyroid disease are sometimes mistaken for health issues, such as depression or perimenopause. When a person’s thyroid produces less than the normal amount of thyroid hormone, it slows down bodily functions resulting in these symptoms of hypothyroidism: fatigue, weight gain, forgetfulness, constipation, cold intolerance, puffy skin, and dry, brittle hair. When a person’s thyroid is overactive, she may develop an enlarged thyroid or goiter and these symptoms of hyperthyroidism: weight loss, diarrhea, muscle weakness, heat intolerance, rapid heartbeat and hair loss.

Thyroid disorder diagnosis/tests If you have symptoms of a thyroid problem or are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy and want to be sure your thyroid is healthy, talk to your doctor. Diagnosis involves taking blood tests to test thyroid function and hormone levels (TSH, T4 and T3) and for the presence of thyroid antibodies, to help pinpoint the cause of your thyroid problems. You may be referred to an endocrinologist for diagnosis or treatment. If you have thyroid disease and require medication, you may need periodic monitoring with blood tests to make sure your thyroid hormones are at acceptable levels.

Thyroid disorder treatment Hypothyroidism is easily treated with a daily dose of the synthetic hormone thyroxine, which has few side effects. Treatment for hyperthyroidism depends on its cause and severity and may include radioactive iodine treatment to destroy the thyroid gland. In some cases, surgical removal of a thyroid may be recommended, followed by treatment with synthetic thyroid hormones. For most women with postpartum thyroiditis, thyroid function will return to normal; in some cases, the condition is permanent.

Thyroid disorder prevention There is not much that can be done to stop the onset of thyroid disease. If you live in a developed country, your diet likely contains enough iodine; in countries where salt isn’t consumed as much, taking iodine supplements may help guard against hypothyroidism. By getting diagnosed and treated you can prevent thyroid problems from becoming more serious and prevent the complications that can occur if they are not treated.

Outside resources
Thyroid Foundation of Canada