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Understanding thyroid disease

In recognition of Thyroid Awareness Month, January is a great opportunity to learn more about your thyroid and common conditions that can impact this misunderstood, but important, part of the body.

About the thyroid

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. Although relatively small, the thyroid gland plays a huge role in the body, influencing the function of many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin. Ensuring that the thyroid gland is healthy and functioning properly is important to the body’s overall well-being. By secreting a hormone that regulates your metabolism, your thyroid makes sure your body uses energy at the proper rate.

If your thyroid is not functioning properly, your metabolism may burn energy rapidly or not quickly enough. Fatigue, weight gain, sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures, or rapid heart rate could be a result of an over- or under-active thyroid.

According to the American Thyroid Association, more than 12 percent of Americans will develop some form of thyroid disease in their lifetime. It is estimated that millions of people, mostly women, have undiagnosed thyroid disorders. There are two main types of thyroid disease, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Both are treatable conditions, so it’s important to understand the symptoms and risk factors for each so you can talk with your doctor if necessary. These conditions sound very similar, so what’s the difference?

Hypothyroidism, also known as underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. These hormones are important because it helps maintain blood pressure and metabolism as well as regulate the reproductive system and other tissue growth and development throughout the body.

Hypothyroidism can develop due to a number of causes, including an existing autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s disease, treatment for hyperthyroidism (the opposite condition), thyroid surgery, radiation therapy used to treat cancers of the head or neck, and certain medications such as lithium.

With hypothyroidism, your metabolism slows down, which can lead to a number of related symptoms, such as weight gain, dry skin and hair, fatigue, depression and muscle cramps, among others.

Hyperthyroidism, also known as overactive thyroid, develops when the thyroid produces and releases too much thyroid hormone. This causes the body’s metabolism to speed up, causing symptoms including weight loss, feeling hot, changes in appetite, irritability, fast or irregular heart rate and more.

Similarly to hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism is often caused by pre-existing autoimmune conditions, most commonly Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease, which causes up to 85 percent of hyperthyroidism cases, is more common among women and also tends to be hereditary.

What to do next

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of a thyroid disorder, make an appointment to talk with your healthcare provider. Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are treatable once diagnosed, so it’s important to see your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

How Health Advocate can help

If you are a Health Advocate member, your Personal Health Advocate can provide more information about these disorders and help make an appointment for you to see your doctor if you think you may be experiencing any signs or symptoms of a thyroid condition.

Other helpful resources

To learn more about these and other thyroid disorders, please visit any of the websites below for additional information: