The odds are that you never really think about your thyroid. But if your thyroid wasn’t working at its best, you would notice.
That’s because diminished thyroid function can lead to a wide range of unpleasant symptoms and health issues. Instead of operating normally, when affected by a medical condition, your thyroid may speed up or slow down, which in turn affects other processes in your body.
Read on as David Laird, MD, general surgeon with West Tennessee Medical Group Jackson Surgical Associates, offers some perspective about conditions affecting this tiny gland and how those conditions are treated.
What Is the Thyroid?
Not familiar with your thyroid? It’s OK—many people aren’t!
The thyroid is an inauspicious, tiny gland in your neck, just above the collarbone. It’s shaped like a butterfly, and when it’s not working right, it can quickly morph most of your body’s processes.
The thyroid is what’s known as an endocrine gland, meaning it makes hormones. These hormones are responsible for the pace of many of the activities in the body, such as how fast your heart beats and how quickly you burn calories.
Those are some big responsibilities for a tiny gland. When the gland is affected by a medical condition, it can cause those metabolic activities to speed up or slow down, which causes your body to malfunction.
Conditions Affecting the Thyroid
What happens when your thyroid isn’t working correctly? Well, that depends on the specific thyroid problem you’re experiencing.
According to the American Thyroid Association, around 20 million Americans have some type of thyroid disease, and these conditions are particularly common among women, who are up to eight times more likely to experience them than men.
There are multiple medical conditions affecting the thyroid, with hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism being most common.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when your body produces too much thyroid hormone. When this happens, the processes in your body speed up. That causes all sorts of symptoms, including nervousness, increased sweating, a fast heartbeat, hand tremors, difficulty sleeping and even muscle weakness. Initially, you may experience more energy than normal, but over time fatigue is common.
Hypothyroidism occurs when your body produces too little thyroid hormone. When this happens, the processes in your body slow down. If you experience this, you’ll likely have symptoms that are the opposite of the ones you’d have with hyperthyroidism. You may feel colder, become more easily fatigued, have dry skin, get more forgetful or depressed and become constipated.
Goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland, which may mean the gland is malfunctioning. A person who develops a goiter may experience hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, or normal functioning, which is known as “euthyroidism.” A goiter can develop for many different reasons, but the most common cause in the United States is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune condition. When this condition occurs, the body’s immune system damages the thyroid gland. Graves’ disease and iodine deficiency are also causes of goiter formation.
Thyroid cancer is another condition affecting the thyroid. In most cases, thyroid nodules are benign, but the American Cancer Society estimates that between two and three in 20 nodules are cancerous. Eight out of 10 cases of thyroid cancer are what’s known as “papillary cancers,” which grow slowly and usually only in one lobe of the thyroid.
How Thyroid Conditions Are Treated
Treatment options for thyroid conditions vary depending on the specific condition.
Someone with hyperthyroidism may be treated using medications known as antithyroid agents, which blocks the gland’s ability to create thyroid hormone. Or radioactive iodine may be prescribed to damage or destroy the cells responsible for making thyroid hormone.
If these therapies are ineffective or not optimal for a patient, surgical removal of the thyroid gland may be recommended. Once the thyroid gland is disabled or removed, your body will require supplementation with thyroid hormone to function normally.
Someone with hypothyroidism is treated by replacing “thyroxine,” which is the main thyroid hormone. If you have hypothyroidism, it may take some experimenting with dosages to get your body back to normal function. But once you’ve reached an optimal thyroid supplementation level, symptoms should resolve.
In the case of a goiter, treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the goiter formation. When iodine deficiency is to blame, an iodine supplement will be prescribed to reduce the size of the goiter. For those who have Hashimoto’s, and hypothyroidism as a result, treatment will include thyroid supplementation, which alleviates the hypothyroidism and may reduce the size of the goiter.
In many cases, goiters that are accompanied by normal thyroid functioning do not require any treatment unless the goiter is large or constricts the airway. In those cases, surgical removal may be recommended.
There are multiple treatment options for those who are diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Treatment may include radioactive iodine therapy, supplementation of thyroid hormone, external beam radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy or surgery. Surgery is the main treatment for most cases of thyroid cancer—and there are two main forms.
Depending on the severity of the cancer and other factors, a person may be treated using a lobectomy, which removes the lobe of the thyroid containing the cancer, or a thyroidectomy, which removes the entire thyroid gland. Those who have the thyroid completely removed require thyroid supplementation afterward, while those who have only a lobe removed may not.
If cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck, surgery may also involve removal of those lymph nodes.
Regardless of what type of thyroid condition you’re experiencing, it’s important to remember that treatment is available! Your medical team can help you determine the best treatment options for your specific condition.
West Tennessee Medical Group Jackson Surgical Associates has been providing expert, compassionate surgical care to those in west Tennessee for more than 50 years. Call (731) 664-7395 to learn more or to schedule an appointment for a surgical consultation.