The thyroid gland forms part of the endocrine system that is responsible for the release of the thyroid hormones that are necessary in regulating the body's metabolism. It is a butterfly shaped gland located in the throat just in front of the neck. When the gland fails to produce the necessary hormones, hypothyroidism occurs. When the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones, vital functions of the body will be affected including an unregulated metabolic process in the body. About 10 million Americans are afflicted with this common type of endocrine disorder and the majority of which are women. Hypothyroidism is a disease that needs the proper medical treatment because the failure of the body to regulate the metabolism will result in decreased organ functions and low energy.
What causes hypothyroidism?
There are two known major causes of hypothyroidism. When the thyroid gland becomes inflamed, leaving a significant amount of tissue damage, the gland is unable to carry out its function of producing enough hormones to sustain bodily functions. This condition is most commonly caused by an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. The person's own defense system destroys the thyroid gland tissues and cells. The Hashimoto's disease is often referred to as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, a condition that is common among Americans.
The second cause of hypothyroidism involves a broader context of various medical treatments such as the surgical removal of the entire thyroid gland or any of its portion. As a result, there will be no or lack of hormonal production to meet the body's needs. Not all surgical removal may cause hypothyroidism, however. Some procedures consist of removal of bothersome nodules on the throat without actually causing any injury or removal of the thyroid gland. In partial surgery involving the thyroid gland, there will be sufficient production of the thyroid hormones to address the body's needs.
Another cause belonging to the second category of the causative factors of hypothyroidism is a radioactive iodine treatment. This is carried out in order to regulate the hyperactive production of the thyroid hormones by the thyroid gland which is a condition called hyperthyroidism. The resulting consequence is there is not enough portion of the gland to supply the body with thyroid hormones. A defective pituitary gland is also attributed to hypothyroidism where there is a normal thyroid gland, but the brain center called the pituitary gland that controls its functional activities does not produce the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which is insufficient enough to trigger the function of the thyroid gland.
Hypothyroidism may also be acquired as a congenital disease where the disease is inborn. When it is not treated immediately, it can result to mental retardation and growth arrest. Certain medications are also identified to result in hypothyroidism with prolonged treatment. The drugs are known to interfere with the ability of the thyroid gland to produce hormones. Known drugs to have a long term side effects of hypothyroidism are lithium (indicated for bipolar disorder), amiodarone (a medication for heart disease), interleuikin-2 (for kidney cancer treatment) and interferon (which is a cancer medication.
How do you know your symptoms are due to hypothyroidism?
The symptoms of hypothyroidism usually vary depending on the extent of the deprivation of the body with the thyroid hormone and the length of time of such deprivation. Some may complain of the serious symptoms of the condition while others may not be symptomatic at all. The symptoms are sometime mild enough that they take place unnoticed. The most common complaint in Hashimoto's disease is goiter formation and the feeling of fullness in the throat area. Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include the following:
- Weight gain
- Dry, coarse hair
- Cold intolerance
- Puffy face
- Hair loss
- Abnormal menstrual cycle (may be heavy or irregular)
- Slow heart rate
- Memory loss
- Muscle cramps
- Joint and muscle pain
- Decreased libido
Who are at risk for hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism affects both sexes, but it is more common in women than in men. Older individuals at the age of 60 and higher are more susceptible to the disease. There is a higher risk for hypothyroidism under the following circumstances:
- Individuals with a goiter problem or have a history of having one
- Those who underwent a procedure for correcting a thyroid problem
- Those who are going through a radiation treatment involving the throat and the neck
- Family history of thyroid problems
- Individuals with an autoimmune disease that includes type 1 diabetes, Sjogren syndrome, pernicious anemia, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus erythematosus.
- Those with Turner syndrome, which is a genetic disorder among women
- Pregnant women or in a condition of 6 months post pregnancy
Hypothyroidism and pregnancy
The risk of hypothyroidism in pregnancy is on a ratio of 3:5 from 1000 pregnancies. The presence of the condition among pregnant women increases the risk for pre-term delivery, pre-eclampsia and miscarriage. It can also have a negative effect on the fetal development of the baby and may result in the slow brain development. It is important to inform your doctor if you are pregnant about an existing hypothyroidism in order that your doctor can prescribe an appropriate medication for your condition. Postpartum hypothyroidism also occurs, but are usually under diagnosed for being mistaken as postpartum blues. It occurs in about 9% of women within the first year after childbirth.
The dangers of hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism can become a very serious condition if left untreated because of the potential complications that may occur with the condition as it continues to progress. However, it is rarely a life threatening condition once prompt treatment is obtained, otherwise complications like a heart failure and coma can occur. It can affect the quality of life that the person lives, however as the person with hypothyroidism easily gets tired and feel fatigued.
Hypothyroidism in children is rare, but when it happens it can result in brain damage, especially among infants with resulting symptoms of intellectual disability and delayed in motor development. Delayed physical growth is also apparent and they may gain weight with a slow growth rate. In adults, untreated hypothyroidism can result in coma, heart failure, difficulty in breathing and stroke.
Is hypothyroidism treatable?
Hypothyroidism is treatable through proper medication. Most of the time, medication like synthetic thyroxine is prescribed which is a hormonal drug similar to the hormone T4 which is secreted by the thyroid gland. The dosage is usually based on the age, weight and the extent of the disease. Moreover, existing medical conditions are also considered prior to the prescription of the drug.
Eating highly nutritious foods can also help reduce the effect of hypothyroidism to one's health. Dietary supplements are also available such as those supplying iodine to the body which is an essential mineral for the thyroid gland. Foods rich in iodine can also help the body obtain adequate supply of iodine to support the proper functioning of the thyroid gland. Iodine rich foods include kelp and seaweeds. Pregnant women can also take iodine supplements which is ideally 250 micrograms a day. Using iodized salt when preparing a meal can also provide supply of iodine to help the thyroid gland to carry out its functions more efficiently.
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