Could you have a thyroid problem and not know about it? The short answer is yes. In fact, up to 60% of people with a thyroid problem don’t know they have one. That means for every 10 people walking around with thyroid disease, only about four of them know about it. Imagine if that statistic applied to other kinds of health problems, like heart defects, broken limbs or mental illness.
And just like heart defects and broken bones and mental illness, thyroid disease is a serious health threat that can throw your whole body into chaos — and that’s not an exaggeration.
The thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped organ at the base of your neck, produces an essential hormone that affects pretty much every part of your body. If this small but powerful organ produces too much or too little of that hormone, you’re going to feel it.
But even if you feel symptoms associated with a malfunctioning thyroid, it can be tough to pin down a condition. You might not realize that the fatigue or irritability or even depression you’ve been feeling for months has a physical cause. In honor of Thyroid Awareness Month, here are the major signs and symptoms that might indicate you have a thyroid problem.
Hyperthyroidism happens when your thyroid is an overachiever. In other words, it’s producing too much thyroid hormone (thyroxine) and your body doesn’t know what to do with it. Because an increase in this hormone boosts your metabolism, you may start losing weight without trying. That might sound like a good thing to some, but it’s not healthy. It’s also a sign that something’s seriously amiss. From the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Heart: fast heartbeat (above 100), irregular rhythm and/or palpitations (pounding sensation)
- Body: fatigue; muscle weakness; weight loss without trying, even if you’re eating the same amount of food; increased appetite; sweating; tremors, which is a slight tremble in your hands and fingers; not being able to stand heat; thinning skin; fine, brittle hair; swelling at the base of your neck (a goiter)
- Bathroom: changes in your bowel habits (usually more frequent bowel movements) and/or, for women, changes in your menstrual pattern
- Mental and emotional: anxiety, irritability and nervousness; trouble sleeping
You may have all of these symptoms, most or just a couple. Part of what makes diagnosing thyroid problems so difficult is that symptoms of thyroid malfunction look a lot like symptoms for many other things.
Our advice? Mention all of your symptoms to your doctor, even if they don’t seem related or relevant. Fatigue might mean anything, but if it’s combined with depression, weight loss and thinning skin, that could spell thyroid problems.
On the other end of the thyroid production scale is hypothyroidism. This happens when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, which makes a big difference in how you feel and function. According to the American Thyroid Association, hypothyroidism happens for a variety of reasons, but the most common causes are autoimmune disorders, surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid, and radiation treatment.
You won’t likely get hypothyroidism without first experiencing other thyroid-related problems, but it’s still good to keep the symptoms in mind, especially if you do have a thyroid problem down the line. With hypothyroidism, you might experience:
- Tiredness and sluggishness
- An inability to get and/or stay warm (increased sensitivity to cold)
- Dry skin
Think of hypothyroidism as the opposite of hyperthyroidism, in a sense. With hypothyroidism, your thyroid isn’t producing enough thyroxine, which slows your body down. Hyperthyroidism speeds things up because of the metabolism boost. Neither situation is a good one.
The only way to diagnose hypothyroidism for sure is to get a blood test to check your TSH level. That stands for “thyroid stimulating hormone,” and it’s a simple blood draw that your primary care doctor can order and assess. If your TSH levels are abnormal, you can discuss options from there. If they’re normal but you still suspect a thyroid problem, keep pushing — or speak with an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in the endocrine system.
Thyroid cancer is sometimes called the “good cancer” (yes, even by doctors) because, for the most part, it’s curable and short-lived for most of the people who get it. Still, there’s no such thing as a good cancer. And not all types of thyroid cancer are easily curable. Plus, people who have their thyroids removed — a routine part of thyroid cancer treatment — have to take a pill every day for the rest of their lives to replace the essential hormone that their bodies no longer create.
The National Cancer Institute estimated a little over 52,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in 2019, representing just 3% of all new cancer cases. The rate of new thyroid cancer cases has been on the rise by just under 2% each year for the last decade. And as an important side note, thyroid cancer is more common in women.
These stats indicate that it’s not likely your thyroid problems signal cancer. We bring it up because it’s a possibility, albeit a small one, and one that might get missed during a routine checkup with your doctor. Most cases of thyroid cancer grow slowly over time, but there are aggressive forms that require more aggressive treatments.
If you’re feeling odd lately and can’t put a finger on why, it might be your thyroid. Note your symptoms and track them to see if they change, improve or get worse. Next on your to-do list? Call your doctor.
Check It Out
Hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism and cancer aren’t the only thyroid problems, but they are the heavy hitters in the world of thyroid disease. Grave’s disease, for example, is a special type of hyperthyroidism and autoimmune disorder that affects just 1% of the population. There’s also the possibility of a goiter, which would cause your thyroid to swell and make it harder to cough and swallow.
About 12% of the American population will develop some type of thyroid problem during their lifetime. Women face a higher risk — they’re 5 to 8 times more likely to have thyroid problems than men. And 1 out of every 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder at some point. Even if the cancer risk is low, the risk for a malfunctioning thyroid isn’t.
Your thyroid plays an integral role in your body’s functioning. It’s not as flashy as the heart and lungs, but it’s a pivotal organ. If it’s malfunctioning — producing too much or too little hormone, or because of a tumor — you’ll likely notice eventually.
And when you do notice, check in with your doctor. A simple physical “neck check” would reveal any unusual swelling or nodules, and blood tests could help rule out hormone imbalances. Your unexplained symptoms might have an explanation after all. You just need to ask the right questions.