Explainer: Understanding thyroid disorders

Explainer: Understanding thyroid disorders

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Greater awareness empowers individuals to recognise early symptoms, seek timely diagnosis, and explore effective treatment options.

January marks Thyroid Awareness Month, drawing attention to the critical role of the thyroid gland in our overall well-being. Despite its importance, many remain unfamiliar with the intricacies of thyroid function and the potential impact of thyroid disorders on various aspects of health. 

What is thyroid?
Thyroid, a delicate butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck, produces hormones — Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4) — that play a pivotal role in regulating the body’s energy usage and influencing the function of nearly every organ. Imbalances in thyroid hormone production can affect metabolism, energy levels, breathing, bone health, temperature regulation, mood, and more.

Thyroid disorders

Thyroid disorders are broadly categorised into hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism results from excessive hormone production, while hypothyroidism stems from insufficient production. There is also a third form of thyroid disorder where the gland develops growths or nodules. Most of these are benign, but some are cancerous.

Demystifying the causes 

Insufficient iodine intake is a primary cause of thyroid disorders globally. Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition where the immune system targets the thyroid, is another prevalent cause. Graves’ disease, toxic nodular goitre, thyroiditis, iodine-induced and drug-induced dysfunction, as well as factitious ingestion of excess thyroid hormones, contribute to hyperthyroidism. Pregnancy can also exacerbate or initiate thyroid problems, potentially impacting both maternal and fetal health, if left unaddressed.

Recognising the symptoms

Weight fluctuations, physical changes, mood swings, energy level alterations, temperature sensitivity, and fertility issues are common indicators of thyroid dysfunction. In hypothyroidism, the symptoms typically include weight gain, constipation, intolerance to cold, dry skin, hair loss, lethargy, and excessive menstrual bleeding, to name some. In hyperthyroidism, there is weight loss, diarrhea, heat intolerance, eye pain, sweating, anxiety, tremors, palpitations, and missed periods. 

Diagnosing thyroid disorders

        1. Blood tests: They measure the blood levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), T3 and T4 (the thyroid hormones that the thyroid gland makes). The doctor may also ask for a thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibody test to diagnose any autoimmune disease. 
        2. Ultrasound: A thyroid ultrasound produces pictures of the thyroid gland and its nodules, helping in the detection of any abnormalities. 
        3. Medical check-up: The doctor does a thorough examination, which includes a neck assessment, eye examination, and inquiry into symptoms and health history.

Treatment options
Based on the type of thyroid problem, the doctor may recommend the following treatment options:

        1. Medication: They alter thyroid hormone levels, either lowering or raising them, depending on the issue. These medications are typically taken for long periods and have minimal side effects when taken under medical supervision.
        2. Radioactive iodine therapy: This treatment is beneficial for hyperthyroidism. It employs a small amount of radioactive iodine to reduce the size and activity of the thyroid gland.
        3. Surgery: A part or all of the thyroid gland is removed to treat hyperthyroidism, or thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancers are, to a large extent, completely treatable if detected early. Hence, it is important to screen any suspicious thyroid nodules. 

The best treatment is determined through a personalised approach that accounts for individual needs and preferences. Don’t let thyroid disorders impact your well-being. Recognise the early signs, seek timely diagnosis, and explore effective treatment options to promote a healthier life.

(Medically reviewed by Dr Aditya Gautam, consultant endocrinologist, Guwahati, India.)

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