If you've never had any problems with your thyroid, you probably haven't spent much time thinking about this important gland situated in the front of your neck. Truth be told, there can be all sorts of symptoms if it starts to go wonky, and some of these can be mild and some can be simply odd. But as annoying (or weird) as they are, these symptoms can clue you in that you might need to head to a doc. Let's take a look at your thyroid gland and how it can affect your body in all sorts of different ways.
Meet your thyroid
Your thyroid is an endocrine gland, situated in your neck. An article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that it releases a flow of thyroid hormones into your bloodstream that helps regulate certain bodily functions, such as your heartbeat, your body temperature and your metabolism. It's shaped like a butterfly or bowtie (you pick!) and you might not be able to feel it if you poke around your neck — and really, if your thyroid is functioning properly, you probably never think about it either.
However, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a healthy thyroid is always working in the background to control how your body uses the energy it has available and has an impact on almost every organ in your body.
Your thyroid is stimulated by yet another endocrine gland — the pituitary, which is found in your brain. Your pituitary gland releases something called the thyroid-stimulating hormone, which in turn causes your thyroid to release thyroid hormones according to the USNLM. Your pituitary gland can also tell if you don't have enough thyroid hormones in your bloodstream and will react accordingly — it will send out more thyroid-stimulating hormone if your thyroid levels are low and will send out less TSH if they're on the high side.
So, what happens when your thyroid isn't functioning normally? Let's take a look.
Thyroid problems: Signs & symptoms
As with many maladies, some thyroid problems don't cause anything other than mild symptoms as well as symptoms that can be mistaken for something else. Also, there is not just one thyroid disease to discuss here — there are a few things that can go wrong in Thyroidland.
"The signs and symptoms of thyroid issues can be very different depending upon exactly which thyroid problem an individual is experiencing," Dr. Samuel Malloy, medical director at Dr. Felix (a U.K.-based online doctor and pharmacy), tells SheKnows. "There's a huge range of thyroid conditions including goiter, thyroiditis, cancer, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism."
Let's break them down to see what symptoms might clue you in that you need to get your thyroid checked out.
Hypothyroidism means that your thyroid gland is underactive and not producing enough thyroid hormones. "Not everyone experiences every symptom, and the symptoms are easily confused with other conditions," Malloy notes. That being said, here are some symptoms hypothyroidism can cause, according to the USNLM:
- Slow heartbeat
- Sensitivity to cold
- Shortness of breath upon exertion
- Weight gain
- Memory problems
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Low or hoarse voice
- Menstrual problems, such as heavy periods or fertility problems
- Muscle pain
- Brittle hair and nails
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, means your thyroid is overactive and producing too much hormone. As you might expect, the symptoms are often opposite those of hypothyroidism, Malloy says. Here are signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Weight loss
- Increased appetite
- Sleep problems
The term goiter describes an enlarged thyroid gland. This can be caused by the conditions outlined above, but in any case, an enlarged thyroid gland should be investigated even if you don't have any other symptoms. According to Malloy, here are some of the more common symptoms of a goiter:
- Lump or swelling in the thyroid area of the neck
- Tightness of the throat
- Voice changes
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Stridor (a high-pitched whistling noise when you breathe)
Also, your thyroid gland can develop cancer. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer:
- Lump in the neck
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain upon swallowing
As you can see, those symptoms are similar to those of a goiter, so Malloy says that it's important to have these types of symptoms checked out if you experience them.
What causes thyroid disease?
Many thyroid conditions are a result of the thyroid malfunctioning because of nutritional deficiencies, genetics or infection, Malloy explains. "In these cases, the thyroid is unable to function correctly, as it does not have what it needs to do so," he adds.
However, there is also autoimmune thyroid disease, which is another ball game. "Thyroid disease from an autoimmune cause occurs because one's own immune system — the body system that protects our body from infections — is treating the thyroid gland like a foreign invader and attacking it," Dr. Chirag Shah, an emergency medicine physician and cofounder of Accesa Labs, tells SheKnows. "Over time, this leads to thyroid tissue destruction and impaired thyroid health."
Additionally, there may be a genetic component to thyroid disease, but generally, genetics tend to come into play more with autoimmune diseases. "There are clusters of families that have higher rates of autoimmune thyroid diseases like Hashimoto's and Graves' disease, suggesting a genetic relationship," Shah notes.
The tendency for autoimmune diseases (as a whole) is more likely to be passed down through families and not necessarily specific diseases according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Autoimmune Disease Research Center.
When to seek a doctor's help
If you have any of these symptoms, even if they seem mild, it wouldn't hurt to check in with a doctor. Hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be detected with a blood test, and a physical exam can help your doctor know if more tests are needed for an enlarged thyroid. Your thyroid takes care of you, so make sure you take care of it.