What is the thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a small organ that’s located in the front of the neck, wrapped around the windpipe (trachea). It’s shaped like a butterfly, smaller in the middle with two wide wings that extend around the side of your throat. The thyroid is a gland. You have glands throughout your body, where they create and release substances that help your body do a specific thing. Your thyroid makes hormones that help control many vital functions of your body.
When your thyroid doesn’t work properly, it can impact your entire body. If your body makes too much thyroid hormone, you can develop a condition called hyperthyroidism. If your body makes too little thyroid hormone, it’s called hypothyroidism. Both conditions are serious and need to be treated by your healthcare provider.
What does the thyroid do?
Your thyroid has an important job to do within your body — releasing and controlling thyroid hormones that control metabolism. Metabolism is a process where the food you take into your body is transformed into energy. This energy is used throughout your entire body to keep many of your body’s systems working correctly. Think of your metabolism as a generator. It takes in raw energy and uses it to power something bigger.
The thyroid controls your metabolism with a few specific hormones — T4 (thyroxine, contains four iodide atoms) and T3 (triiodothyronine, contains three iodide atoms). These two hormones are created by the thyroid and they tell the body’s cells how much energy to use. When your thyroid works properly, it will maintain the right amount of hormones to keep your metabolism working at the right rate. As the hormones are used, the thyroid creates replacements.
This is all supervised by something called the pituitary gland. Located in the center of the skull, below your brain, the pituitary gland monitors and controls the amount of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream. When the pituitary gland senses a lack of thyroid hormones or a high level of hormones in your body, it will adjust the amounts with its own hormone. This hormone is called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). The TSH will be sent to the thyroid and it will tell the thyroid what needs to be done to get the body back to normal.
What is thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease is a general term for a medical condition that keeps your thyroid from making the right amount of hormones. Your thyroid typically makes hormones that keep your body functioning normally. When the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, your body uses energy too quickly. This is called hyperthyroidism. Using energy too quickly will do more than make you tired — it can make your heart beat faster, cause you to lose weight without trying and even make you feel nervous. On the flip-side of this, your thyroid can make too little thyroid hormone. This is called hypothyroidism. When you have too little thyroid hormone in your body, it can make you feel tired, you might gain weight and you may even be unable to tolerate cold temperatures.
These two main disorders can be caused by a variety of conditions. They can also be passed down through families (inherited).
Who is affected by thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease can affect anyone — men, women, infants, teenagers and the elderly. It can be present at birth (typically hypothyroidism) and it can develop as you age (often after menopause in women).
Thyroid disease is very common, with an estimated 20 million people in the Unites States having some type of thyroid disorder. A woman is about five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition than a man.
You may be at a higher risk of developing a thyroid disease if you:
- Have a family history of thyroid disease.
- Have a medical condition (these can include pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, primary adrenal insufficiency, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome and Turner syndrome).
- Take a medication that’s high in iodine (amiodarone).
- Are older than 60, especially in women.
- Have had treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer (thyroidectomy or radiation).
Symptoms and Causes
What causes thyroid disease?
The two main types of thyroid disease are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Both conditions can be caused by other diseases that impact the way the thyroid gland works.
Conditions that can cause hypothyroidism include:
- Thyroiditis: This condition is an inflammation (swelling) of the thyroid gland. Thyroiditis can lower the amount of hormones your thyroid produces.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: A painless disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition where the body’s cells attack and damage the thyroid. This is an inherited condition.
- Postpartum thyroiditis: This condition occurs in 5% to 9% of women after childbirth. It’s usually a temporary condition.
- Iodine deficiency: Iodine is used by the thyroid to produce hormones. An iodine deficiency is an issue that affects several million people around the world..
- A non-functioning thyroid gland: Sometimes, the thyroid gland doesn’t work correctly from birth. This affects about 1 in 4,000 newborns. If left untreated, the child could have both physical and mental issues in the future. All newborns are given a screening blood test in the hospital to check their thyroid function.
Conditions that can cause hyperthyroidism include:
- Graves’ disease: In this condition the entire thyroid gland might be overactive and produce too much hormone. This problem is also called diffuse toxic goiter (enlarged thyroid gland).
- Nodules: Hyperthyroidism can be caused by nodules that are overactive within the thyroid. A single nodule is called toxic autonomously functioning thyroid nodule, while a gland with several nodules is called a toxic multi-nodular goiter.
- Thyroiditis: This disorder can be either painful or not felt at all. In thyroiditis, the thyroid releases hormones that were stored there. This can last for a few weeks or months.
- Excessive iodine: When you have too much iodine (the mineral that is used to make thyroid hormones) in your body, the thyroid makes more thyroid hormones than it needs. Excessive iodine can be found in some medications (amiodarone, a heart medication) and cough syrups.
Is there a higher risk of developing thyroid disease if I have diabetes?
If you have diabetes, you’re at a higher risk of developing a thyroid disease than people without diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. If you already have one autoimmune disorder, you are more likely to develop another one.
For people with type 2 diabetes, the risk is lower, but still there. If you have type 2 diabetes, you’re more likely to develop a thyroid disease later in life.
Regular testing is recommended to check for thyroid issues. Those with type 1 diabetes may be tested more often — immediately after diagnosis and then every year or so — than people with type 2 diabetes. There isn’t a regular schedule for testing if you have type 2 diabetes, however your healthcare provider may suggest a schedule for testing over time.
If you have diabetes and get a positive thyroid test, there are a few things to you can do to help feel the best possible. These tips include:
- Getting enough sleep.
- Exercising regularly.
- Watching your diet.
- Taking all of your medications as directed.
- Getting tested regularly as directed by your healthcare provider.
What common symptoms can happen with thyroid disease?
There are a variety of symptoms you could experience if you have a thyroid disease. Unfortunately, symptoms of a thyroid condition are often very similar to the signs of other medical conditions and stages of life. This can make it difficult to know if your symptoms are related to a thyroid issue or something else entirely.
For the most part, the symptoms of thyroid disease can be divided into two groups — those related to having too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) and those related to having too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can include:
- Experiencing anxiety, irritability and nervousness.
- Having trouble sleeping.
- Losing weight.
- Having an enlarged thyroid gland or a goiter.
- Having muscle weakness and tremors.
- Experiencing irregular menstrual periods or having your menstrual cycle stop.
- Feeling sensitive to heat.
- Having vision problems or eye irritation.
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can include:
- Feeling tired (fatigue).
- Gaining weight.
- Experiencing forgetfulness.
- Having frequent and heavy menstrual periods.
- Having dry and coarse hair.
- Having a hoarse voice.
- Experiencing an intolerance to cold temperatures.
Can thyroid issues make me lose my hair?
Hair loss is a symptom of thyroid disease, particularly hypothyroidism. If you start to experience hair loss and are concerned about it, talk to your healthcare provider.
Can thyroid issues cause seizures?
In most cases, thyroid issues don’t cause seizures. However, if you have a very severe cases of hypothyroidism that hasn’t been diagnosed or treated, your risk of developing low serum sodium goes up. This could lead to seizures.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is thyroid disease diagnosed?
Sometimes, thyroid disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are easily confused with those of other conditions. You may experience similar symptoms when you are pregnant or aging and you would when developing a thyroid disease. Fortunately, there are tests that can help determine if your symptoms are being caused by a thyroid issue. These tests include:
- Blood tests.
- Imaging tests.
- Physical exams.
One of the most definitive ways to diagnose a thyroid problem is through blood tests. Thyroid blood tests are used to tell if your thyroid gland is functioning properly by measuring the amount of thyroid hormones in your blood. These tests are done by taking blood from a vein in your arm. Thyroid blood tests are used to see if you have:
Thyroid blood tests are used to diagnose thyroid disorders associated with hyper- or hypothyroidism. These include:
The specific blood tests that will be done to test your thyroid can include:
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced in the pituitary gland and regulates the balance of thyroid hormones — including T4 and T3 — in the bloodstream. This is usually the first test your provider will do to check for thyroid hormone imbalance. Most of the time, thyroid hormone deficiency (hypothyroidism) is associated with an elevated TSH level, while thyroid hormone excess (hyperthyroidism) is associated with a low TSH level. If TSH is abnormal, measurement of thyroid hormones directly, including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) may be done to further evaluate the problem. Normal TSH range for an adult: 0.40 - 4.50 mIU/mL (milli-international units per liter of blood).
- T4: Thyroxine tests for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, and used to monitor treatment of thyroid disorders. Low T4 is seen with hypothyroidism, whereas high T4 levels may indicate hyperthyroidism. Normal T4 range for an adult: 5.0 – 11.0 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter of blood).
- FT4: Free T4 or free thyroxine is a method of measuring T4 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T4 and may prevent accurate measurement. Normal FT4 range for an adult: 0.9 - 1.7 ng/dL (nanograms per deciliter of blood)
- T3: Triiodothyronine tests help diagnose hyperthyroidism or to show the severity of hyperthyroidism. Low T3 levels can be observed in hypothyroidism, but more often this test is useful in the diagnosis and management of hyperthyroidism, where T3 levels are elevated. Normal T3 range: 100 - 200 ng/dL (nanograms per deciliter of blood).
- FT3: Free T3 or free triiodothyronine is a method of measuring T3 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T3 and may prevent accurate measurement. Normal FT3 range: 2.3 - 4.1 pg/mL (picograms per milliliter of blood)
These tests alone aren’t meant to diagnose any illness but may prompt your healthcare provider to do additional testing to evaluate for a possible thyroid disorder.
Additional blood tests might include:
- Thyroid antibodies: These tests help identify different types of autoimmune thyroid conditions. Common thyroid antibody tests include microsomal antibodies (also known as thyroid peroxidase antibodies or TPO antibodies), thyroglobulin antibodies (also known as TG antibodies), and thyroid receptor antibodies (includes thyroid stimulating immunoglobulins [TSI] and thyroid blocking immunoglobulins [TBI]).
- Calcitonin: This test is used to diagnose C-cell hyperplasia and medullary thyroid cancer, both of which are rare thyroid disorders.
- Thyroglobulin: This test is used to diagnose thyroiditis (thyroid inflammation) and to monitor treatment of thyroid cancer.
Talk to your healthcare provider about the ranges for these thyroid blood tests. Your ranges might not be the same as someone else’s. That’s often alright. If you have any concerns or worries about your blood test results, talk to your provider.
In many cases, taking a look at the thyroid itself can answer a lot of questions. Your healthcare provider might do an imaging test called a thyroid scan. This allows your provider to look at your thyroid to check for an increased size, shape or growths (nodules).
Your provider could also use an imaging test called an ultrasound. This is a diagnostic procedure that transmits high-frequency sound waves, inaudible to the human ear, through body tissues. The echoes are recorded and transformed into video or photographic images. You may think of ultrasounds related to pregnancy, but they are used to diagnose many different issues within your body. Unlike X-rays, ultrasounds do not use radiation.
There’s typically little or no preparation before your ultrasound. You don’t need to change your diet beforehand or fast. During the test, you’ll lie flat on a padded examining table with your head positioned on a pillow so that your head is tilted back. A warm, water-soluble gel is applied to the skin over the area that’s being examined. This gel won’t hurt your skin or stain your clothes. Your healthcare provider will then apply a probe to your neck and gently move it around to see all parts of the thyroid.
An ultrasound typically takes about 20 to 30 minutes.
Another way to quickly check the thyroid is with a physical exam in your healthcare provider’s office. This is a very simple and painless test where your provider feels your neck for any growths or enlargement of the thyroid.
Management and Treatment
How is thyroid disease treated?
Your healthcare provider’s goal is to return your thyroid hormone levels to normal. This can be done in a variety of ways and each specific treatment will depend on the cause of your thyroid condition.
If you have high levels of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), treatment options can include:
- Anti-thyroid drugs (methimazole and propylthioracil): These are medications that stop your thyroid from making hormones.
- Radioactive iodine: This treatment damages the cells of your thyroid, preventing it from making high levels of thyroid hormones.
- Beta blockers: These medications don’t change the amount of hormones in your body, but they help control your symptoms.
- Surgery: A more permanent form of treatment, your healthcare provider may surgically remove your thyroid (thyroidectomy). This will stop it from creating hormones. However, you will need to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of your life.
If you have low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), the main treatment option is:
- Thyroid replacement medication: This drug is a synthetic (man-made) way to add thyroid hormones back into your body. One drug that’s commonly used is called levothyroxine. By using a medication, you can control thyroid disease and live a normal life.
Are there different types of thyroid removal surgery?
If your healthcare provider determines that your thyroid needs to be removed, there are a couple of ways that can be done. Your thyroid may need to be completely removed or just partially. This will depend on the severity of your condition. Also, if your thyroid is very big (enlarged) or has a lot of growths on it, that could prevent you from being eligible for some types of surgery.
The surgery to remove your thyroid is called a thyroidectomy. There are two main ways this surgery can be done:
- With an incision on the front of your neck.
- With an incision in your armpit.
The incision on the front of your neck is more of the traditional version of a thyroidectomy. It allows your surgeon to go straight in and remove the thyroid. In many cases, this might be your best option. You may need this approach if your thyroid is particularly big or has a lot of larger nodules.
Alternatively, there is a version of the thyroid removal surgery where your surgeon makes an incision in your armpit and then creates a tunnel to your thyroid. This tunnel is made with a special tool called an elevated retractor. It creates an opening that connects the incision in your armpit with your neck. The surgeon will use a robotic arm that will move through the tunnel to get to the thyroid. Once there, it can remove the thyroid back through the tunnel and out of the incision in your armpit.
This procedure is often called scarless because the incision is under your armpit and out of sight. However, it’s more complicated for the surgeon and the tunnel is more invasive for you. You may not be a candidate for this type of thyroid removal if you:
- Are not at a healthy body weight.
- Have large thyroid nodules.
- Have a condition like thyroiditis or Graves’s disease.
Talk to your about all of your treatment options and the best type of surgery for you.
How long does it take to recover from thyroid surgery (thyroidectomy)?
It will take your body a few weeks to recover after your thyroid is surgically removed (thyroidectomy). During this time you should avoid a few things, including:
- Submerging your incision under water.
- Lifting an object that’s heavier than 15 pounds.
- Doing more than light exercise.
This generally lasts for about two weeks. After that, you can return to your normal activities.
Outlook / Prognosis
How long after my thyroid is removed will my tiredness go away?
Typically, you will be given medication to help with your symptoms right after surgery. Your body actually has thyroid hormone still circulating throughout it, even after the thyroid has been removed. The hormones can still be in your body for two to three weeks. Medication will reintroduce new hormones into your body after the thyroid has been removed. If you are still feeling tired after surgery, remember that this can be a normal part of recovering from any type of surgery. It takes time for your body to heal. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are still experiencing fatigue and other symptoms of thyroid disease after surgery.
If part of my thyroid is surgically removed, will the other part be able to make enough thyroid hormones to keep me off of medication?
Sometimes, your surgeon may be able to remove part of your thyroid and leave the other part so that it can continue to create and release thyroid hormones. This is most likely in situations where you have a nodule that’s causing your thyroid problem. About 75% of people who have only one side of the thyroid removed are able to make enough thyroid hormone after surgery without hormone replacement therapy.
Can I check my thyroid at home?
You can do a quick and easy self-exam of your thyroid at home. The only tools you need to do this self-exam are a mirror and a glass of water.
To do the thyroid self-exam, follow these steps:
- Start by identifying where your thyroid is located. Generally, you’ll find the thyroid on the front of your neck, between your collar bone and Adam’s apple. In men, the Adam’s apple is much easier to see. For women, it’s usually easiest to look from the collar bone up.
- Tip your head back while looking in a mirror. Look at your neck and try to hone in on the space you will be looking once you start the exam.
- Once you’re ready, take a drink of water while your head is tilted back. Watch your thyroid as you swallow. During this test, you’re looking for lumps or bumps. You may be able to see them when you swallow the water.
Repeat this test a few times to get a good look at your thyroid. If you see any lumps or bumps, reach out to your healthcare provider.
Should I exercise if I have a thyroid disease?
Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. You do not need to change your exercise routine if you have a thyroid disease. Exercise does not drain your body’s thyroid hormones and it shouldn’t hurt you to exercise. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider before you start a new exercise routine to make sure that it’s a good fit for you.
Can I live a normal life with a thyroid disease?
A thyroid disease is often a life-long medical condition that you will need to manage constantly. This often involves a daily medication. Your healthcare provider will monitor your treatments and make adjustments over time. However, you can usually live a normal life with a thyroid disease. It may take some time to find the right treatment option for you and control your hormone levels, but then people with these types of conditions can usually live life without many restrictions.