(This article originally appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Most people who walk into Dr. Christina Mitchell’s Philadelphia endocrinology office have vague complaints. “Something’s off,” they’ll say. Or, “Something’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” It’s a thyroid problem.
“The signs and symptoms of thyroid disease are very nonspecific, because there are hormone receptors on so many organs. Because it’s a systemic illness, all patients know is that something is wrong, and they should have further evaluation,” says Mitchell, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Why Thyroid Disorder Is So Hard to Recognize
Your thyroid produces a hormone that regulates body temperature, metabolism and heartbeat. When that hormone production becomes disturbed — and what causes that disturbance can vary from person to person — your body may experience many symptoms or none at all.
Aside from annoying symptoms, a thyroid condition can be life threatening, especially as you age.
“Many adults can have thyroid disease without having any symptoms at all,” says Dr. Wendy Sacks, endocrinologist in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism and the Thyroid Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. But very often, people will have varying signs that their thyroid is not operating optimally. Whether you have a collection of symptoms or just one or two, it’s important to discuss the issue with your doctor.
“I tell my patients that every patient with thyroid disease has his or her own constellation of symptoms,” Mitchell says.
Hypothyroidism vs. Hyperthyroidism
Typically, in thyroid disease, the thyroid produces too little (hypothyroidism) or too much (hyperthyroidism) hormone. As we age, thyroid issues become more prevalent, but Mitchell warns, they can also be written off as signs of aging. Below are the symptoms to watch for. If they arise, talk to your doctor about testing your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), to determine whether your body is over- or under-producing the substance that regulates so much of how well you feel.
Feeling tired is a hallmark of both hypo- and hyper-thyroidism, says Mitchell. In those with hypo-thyroidism, your metabolism is so slow that your body can feel like it’s trudging through your day-to-day life like a truck whose tires are mired in mud. In hyper-thyroid cases, your system is in such high gear that “it can be really physically and mentally exhausting,” Mitchell says.
You may also feel short of breath with hyper-thyroidism. “Any exertion makes you feel like you’ve done much more,” says Sacks.
Symptom: Dry, Brittle Skin, Hair And Nails
There are thyroid receptors in the skin — hair and nails are versions of skin. You may notice that you’ve got scaly, dry skin or patches of dry skin, especially if you have hypo-thyroidism. Some people with hyperthyroid disease notice hair loss or thinning hair. Are your eyebrows fading to nothing at their outer edges? That could also be a sign of thyroid disease.
Symptom: Mood Changes
The majority of people with hypothyroid problems report feeling more depressed, with a low type of mood. Those with hyperthyroid problems report they feel more anxious, irritable or jittery, Sacks says.
Symptom: Appetite And Weight Changes
Hypothyroid patients tend to be heavier and to put on weight even though they don’t change their eating habits. Conversely, those with hyperthyroid issues see pounds drop off for no apparent reason. If you have hyperthyroid issues, you may feel constantly hungry, and may gain weight because of your increased appetite. But some patients, Sacks says, get into a hypermetabolic state and actually lose weight.
Symptom: Brain Fog
You may want to write off your inability to recall words or names as a sign of aging, but it can also be a sign of thyroid disorder. Sacks says those with hypothyroid problems might have memory dysfunction — an inability to recall names or facts while those with hyperthyroid issues complain of a lack of focus and an inability to concentrate. “The most distressed people who come into my office are those with hyperthyroidism,” she adds, because they feel like they are unable to do the things they used to do.
Symptom: Body Temperature
Because those with hypothyroid issues experience a slowed heart rate, they may find that they are always cold — even when others around them are perfectly comfortable, Sacks says. If you have too much thyroid hormone, you may find you constantly have sweaty palms and skin, and that a rise in temperature feels like you’ve stepped into a furnace.
Symptom: Twinges And Pain
With hypothyroid disease, some people experience numbness or tingling in their feet and hands. Some even experience carpal tunnel syndrome, a wrist pain usually associated with repeated movements. Why this happens is unclear, but some researchers believe the low level of hormone can lead to nerve damage.
Symptom: Heart Rate
Thyroid disease can lead to heart palpitations or a racing heart. Hypothyroid patients’ hearts may have skipped beats, Mitchell says.
It’s a Serious Disorder
As you can see, there are many reasons to treat thyroid disorders. But aside from annoying symptoms, a thyroid condition can be life threatening, especially as you age. If you have unrecognized hyperthyroid disease, particularly, and you sustain another health problem — such as flu or pneumonia — it could result in what is called a “thyroid storm” that leads to an excess of thyroid hormone production. “This condition causes fever and impairs your circulatory capacity. It can affect your mental status, requires intensive care in the hospital and can lead to death,” Mitchell says.
Thyroid testing is not part of a regular panel of blood work, but you can request it from your doctor. If your thyroid production is high or low, your physician will prescribe daily medication and then have you check back at regular intervals to make sure the levels have moved into the appropriate range.
Tapazole is typically prescribed for hyperthyroid problems. It has two rare but serious side effects: lowering of the white blood cells and liver problems. If you take this medication and develop sore throat and fever or signs of jaundice (yellowing skin or yellowing in the whites of the eyes), you should contact your doctor.
Hypothryoid patients are usually prescribed levothyroxine, which is very effective in controlling the disease. It may initially cause hair loss, but that side effect usually subsides. As with any medication, you should discuss with your doctor possible drug side effects.
Final Note About Autoimmune-Related Thyroid Problems
Your doctor may also want you to be tested for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune form of hypothyroid disease that may worsen over time. Similarly, Grave’s Disease is an autoimmune disease for some people with hyperthyroid disease. “Auto-immune diseases often have a familial predisposition,” Mitchell says, and can be triggered by stressful life events — like a death in the family or loss of a job.
At each physical exam, your doctor should palpate your neck to check for changes to your thyroid gland. But with proper care, thyroid disease is a manageable condition that is relatively easy to live with.
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