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Signs and symptoms of thyroid disease

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You’ve heard of the thyroid, but how much do you really know about it? 

This week on "Take Care,"  Dr. David Cooper explains the functions of the thyroid and the various diseases that it can harbor.  Cooper is the director of the Thyroid Clinic and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. David Cooper.

The thyroid is a “butterfly-shaped gland” that is found in the front of the neck.  It produces hormones that regulate many of our bodies’ everyday functions -- including digestion speed, heart rate, and even how quickly our brains process information.  Improper thyroid function can be the result of a few different disorders.

Hyperthyroidism involves an overactive thyroid that produces increased amounts of hormones.  Symptoms of an overactive thyroid can include anxiety, irritability, insomnia, muscle fatigue, and weight loss, among others.  The condition is typically caused by Grave’s Disease, an auto-immune disorder.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is hypothyroidism, which involves lower hormone levels in the thyroid.  Symptoms of the condition include sluggishness, weight gain, fatigue, depression, and dry skin and hair.  Hypothyroidism is often associated with the immune disorder known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

According to Cooper, women have a higher tendency to have auto-immune disorders and are therefore more likely than men to be affected by hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.  Both diseases can gradually “creep up” on people and are often passed off as signs of aging or increased stress. 

Yet these symptoms don’t always mean there is a thyroid problem. 

“It is really important to distinguish whether the symptoms that the person is having are actually from a thyroid problem or whether they are due to something else,” Cooper says.

Thyroid cancer is another common thyroid disease. It may surprise some, but Cooper says it is the fastest growing kind of cancer among all cancers in the United States.  In addition, it is the fifth most common form of cancer found in women. 

Part of why this kind of cancer diagnosis is increasing is because of improved medical imaging.  Nodules are often found through screening for other health issues and are usually small cancers that are not threatening.  It remains unclear “whether it is really advantageous to even know about these early forms of cancer,” Cooper says.

Each of these thyroid diseases can be treated using methods that range from hormone replacement to surgery.  Primary care physicians can identify and treat most thyroid ailments, although specialists, mainly endocrinologists, may be required depending on the type and severity of the condition. 

Cooper stresses that the symptoms of thyroid disorders do not necessarily mean that there is a problem or that treatment is required.  Because the thyroid regulates so many of the body’s functions, it is easy to confuse symptoms of thyroid disease with other more common illnesses.  However, Cooper says it is still important to check any possible signs of thyroid illness, as an unhealthy thyroid can be very detrimental to your wellbeing.