By Padmalatha Berikai, M.D.
Endocrinologist, Rush Copley Medical Group
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located just below your Adam's apple in the front of the neck. Through the hormones it produces, the thyroid gland influences almost all of the metabolic processes in your body, and as result is susceptible to both harmless and life-threatening disorders, including cancer.
The most common thyroid problems involve abnormal production of thyroid hormones. Too much of these chemicals results in a condition known as hyperthyroidism. Insufficient hormone production leads to hypothyroidism.
According to the Thyroid Foundation of America, between 20 and 25 percent of the population in the United States probably have a genetic tendency toward autoimmune disorders.
Many of these people can develop either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is one of the most common thyroid problems. Its cause is usually attributed to Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This condition causes the body's immune system to mistakenly attack the thyroid gland.
Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain, constipation, heavy menstrual periods, cold intolerance, dry skin, hair loss and slow thinking.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) is usually attributed to Graves' disease. It occurs when the body's immune system overstimulates the thyroid.
Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism include shaking, nervousness, rapid heartbeat or palpitations, weight loss, feeling hot, fatigue, more frequent bowel movements and lighter menstrual periods.
In addition to symptoms of hyperthyroidism, some patients with Graves' disease develop eye symptoms such as bulging of the eyes, eye irritation, occasionally double vision or loss of vision.
Your risks are higher for thyroid disorders if your family members have thyroid problems; or if you or family members have other immune-system problems including insulin-dependent juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis or pernicious anemia.
You are also at increased risk if you are pregnant, a new mother or you are a woman over 50 or a man over 60.
As you age, the thyroid gland sometimes doesn't function well, particularly in producing less thyroid hormone than you need.
Because it may seem you like you are just getting older, thyroid testing can be overlooked.
Ask your physician to do a TSH test (for thyroid stimulating hormone) at least once every five years if you are over 50 or more often if you have symptoms.
Although the effects can be unpleasant or uncomfortable, most thyroid problems can be managed well if properly diagnosed and treated.
If you are at increased risk or suspect you have some symptoms of a thyroid problem, talk to your physician and ask them about thyroid screening.