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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
Conditions that can cause hyperthyroidism include:
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:
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:
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can include:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
If you have low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), the main treatment option is:
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:
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:
Talk to your about all of your treatment options and the best type of surgery for you.
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:
This generally lasts for about two weeks. After that, you can return to your normal activities.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/19/2020.