The thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland located in the neck. It releases hormones that influence almost all the metabolic processes in the body. Given its importance in bodily function, even a minor thyroid problem can have intense and far-reaching effects. The most common thyroid disorders involve abnormal production of thyroid hormones. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid is underactive and thus does not produce enough hormones for the body’s needs. Hyperthyroidism is the opposite, in which the thyroid produces too many hormones.
Hypothyroidism accounts for about 90 percent of thyroid complications. Despite its prevalence, this condition is largely underdiagnosed on account of the vagueness of its symptoms and their ability to be mistaken for sleep deprivation, aging or menopause. The severity of such symptoms varies from patient to patient and depending on the stage of the disease. They tend to occur slowly and worsen with time. People of any age are at risk of developing hypothyroidism although it occurs most frequently in middle-aged and elderly women. Genetic risk factors are also involved.
Thyroid hormones impact the way in which the body uses energy and, so its symptoms have mainly to do with the body ‘slowing down’. These include:
- Weakness and fatigue—This is by far the most common symptom. It is a constant feeling of exhaustion and tiredness that doesn’t go away, even after a full night’s sleep.
- Dry and brittle skin and nails—Slowed metabolism (as a result of insufficient production of thyroid hormones) reduces sweating.
- Increased sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Constipation—This is another extremely common symptom of hypothyroidism. It occurs because of a slowdown of digestive processes in the gut.
- Memory loss and mental fogginess
- Irregular, unusually heavy menstrual periods and severe stomach cramps
- Dry hair
- Weight gain—this weight gain has usually to do with the decreased levels of physical activity and increased amount of time spent sleeping caused by hypothyroidism.
- Depression—Thyroid hormones are thought to somehow influence the production of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, serotonin.
- Muscle weakness and tingling sensations in the extremities of the body
- Decreased sex drive and infertility
- Thinning hair, especially in the eyebrows
- In young children, hypothyroidism results in developmental delays. Children with this problem tend to be much smaller than others their age and experience muscle soreness, difficulty focusing and even mental retardation.
- Swelling in the neck.
Like hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism (though far less common) has genetic risk factors and affects, mostly, females. This condition causes many bodily processes to speed up. For this reason, several of its symptoms are the exact opposite of those caused by hypothyroidism.
- Weight loss
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure, pounding heart sensations, palpitations
- Restlessness, anxiety and difficulty sleeping
- Hair loss
- Excessive sweating
- Increased heat sensitivity
- Irregular menstrual periods—Whereas, hypothyroidism causes heavier periods that occur more frequently, hyperthyroidism causes lighter, less frequent menstruation.
- Diarrhea—In the case of hyperthyroidism, bowel movements are sped up as opposed to being slowed down as they are in hypothyroidism.
- Difficulty breathing
- Muscle weakness or shaky hands
Both thyroid disorders are easily treated, but are capable of causing severe, long-term damage to the body, if allowed to continue unchecked. Contact your health-care professional immediately if you have been experiencing even a few of the above symptoms for long periods of time.
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