In honor of Thyroid Awareness Month, we’re talking all things thyroid. Commonly described as butterfly-shaped, your thyroid rests at the front of your neck and controls many important bodily functions. Proper body temperature, breathing, digestion, and heart rate all depend on the hormones secreted by your thyroid. There are a number of potential thyroid issues, but in this post, we focus on hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer.
What Is Hyperthyroidism?
Also known as overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism is when the gland produces more hormones than you need. Untreated hyperthyroidism may cause a variety of health problems, including issues with bones, fertility, heart, and muscles.
There are several conditions that may cause hyperthyroidism. The most common are Graves’ disease, overactive thyroid nodules, and thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid).
Risk factors of hyperthyroidism
The following factors increase your risk of developing hyperthyroidism:
- A family history of thyroid disease
- Being age 60 or older
- Being female
- Iodine-rich foods and medications
- Pernicious anemia, caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency
- The hormonal disorder primary adrenal insufficiency
- Type 1 diabetes
Risk also increases during the first six months following a pregnancy.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism
Since the hormones secreted by your thyroid control a wide range of bodily functions, secreting too much of those hormones may cause a variety of issues. Symptoms vary widely from person to person and may include:
With patients over 60, it is not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose hyperthyroidism as dementia or depression. This is because two symptoms that are unique to seniors – loss of appetite and isolation – are common symptoms of depression in younger people.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is essentially the opposite of hyperthyroidism. Also known as underactive thyroid, the condition causes your body to create too little of the thyroid hormone.
Risk factors of hypothyroidism
As with hyperthyroidism, women are at increased risk of hypothyroidism, particularly if they have given birth within six months. Other risk factors include:
- Personal or family history of thyroid problems
- History of surgery to correct a thyroid problem
- Radiation treatment to the thyroid or general neck and chest area
- Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjogren’s syndrome
You are also at increased risk if you have type 1 diabetes or pernicious anemia, just as in hyperthyroidism.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism
Symptoms vary from person to person. Some are exactly the same as with hyperthyroidism and some are basically the opposite. Common symptoms include:
The condition develops very slowly, so you may not notice symptoms for years. Many symptoms, such as weight gain and fatigue, are common to a variety of conditions.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism
Since the symptoms of both conditions closely match numerous health problems, your doctor relies on diagnostic tests in addition to the standard physical exam. This includes blood tests as well as imaging, such as an ultrasound of the thyroid. Typically, both conditions can be treated medically. However, surgery is sometimes necessary to treat hyperthyroidism.
There are four main types of thyroid cancer. The most difficult to cure is anaplastic thyroid cancer. This type is extremely rare but very aggressive. Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type. It forms in the follicular cells of the thyroid and grows slowly. Typically occurring before age 45, it’s one of the most treatable forms of any type of cancer. The other two more common thyroid cancers are follicular and medullary. Both are relatively easy to treat and boast excellent survival rates.
You are more likely to get thyroid cancer if you are a woman between the ages of 25 and 65. Your risk is also greater if you were exposed to radiation in the head and neck area as a child. Family history of thyroid disease or cancer also raise your risk, as does a personal history of goiter. People of Asian descent are also more prone to thyroid cancer, as are those with certain genetic conditions. These include:
- Familial medullary thyroid cancer (FMTC)
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A syndrome (MEN2A)
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B syndrome (MEN2B)
As with all cancers, you can have all of the risk factors and never contract the disease. You can also have none and still contract it. Doctors still have not determined what causes cancer.
Signs of thyroid cancer
Thyroid cancer often presents no symptoms in the early stages. It may be discovered during a routine exam. However, if you notice any of the following, talk to your doctor:
- Lump or lumps in the neck
- Difficulty breathing
- Trouble or pain when swallowing
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and take your medical history. He or she may also perform a laryngoscopy, which is a tool used to examine the larynx and vocal cords. Other diagnostics include blood work and imaging such as an ultrasound or CT scan. If your doctor discovers thyroid nodules, he or she will perform a biopsy to determine whether they’re cancerous. Most nodules are benign, i.e. not cancerous.
What Medicare Covers
Your Medicare Part B insurance covers most diagnostic tests deemed medically necessary by your doctor. As always, if you have any questions regarding Medicare, call us toll-free at 855-350-8101 to speak to a licensed agent.