There are a number of different thyroid problems which most of the time are just referred to as an underactive or overactive thyroid. The medical term for underactivity of the thyroid gland is known as hypothyroidism whereas overactivity is known as hyperthyroidism. These are not single conditions. There are many conditions that may be lead to hypothyroidism just as there are many conditions that can result in hyperthyroidism.
How to spot thyroid problems
It is not always as simple to spot a thyroid problem as is sometimes thought. In fact there are instances where a thyroid problem is only identified when tests are conducted for other medical problems. For example, women who may be experiencing difficulty falling pregnant may only then discover that they are suffering hypothyroidism onc it is revealed by laboratory tests.
Most people think that a drastic change in body weight is the main way to spot a thyroid problem. It is believed that there is significant weight gain with hypothyroidism and a weight loss with hyperthyroidism. However, this is not always the case. In fact the change in body weight may not always be as drastic as is thought. Instead changes in energy levels may be one of the first symptoms but on its own it is not immediately thought to be due to thyroid problems.
Similarly a change in the size of the thyroid gland, a feeling of a lump in the neck where the thyroid gland is located or nodules (bumps) on the thyroid gland may not always be present in every condition that results in hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Many people with mild thyroid problems may not even notice the signs and symptoms listed below for months or years.
It is important to note that even if a thyroid problem is suspected by the existing signs and symptoms, it can only be conclusively diagnosed with the respective laboratory tests.
Read more on types of thyroid problems.
What happens with thyroid problems?
The thyroid gland is responsible for producing and secreting the thyroid hormones. There are two such hormones known as thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones act on all cells throught the body and stimulates metabolic activity. Under the influence of T4 and T3, the cells produce more energy by consuming available nutrients.
By understanding the functions of the thyroid gland, it is easier to understand the changes that occur in the body when these hormone levels are too low (hypothyroidism) or too high (hyperthyroidism).
Changes in Energy Level
A change in energy level may not be easily noticed at the outset. However, it is almost always present in thyroid problems since the thyroid hormones influences the metabolic rate, and therefore energy production. In hypothyroidism, people experience low energy levels, are easily tired, feel fatigued and there is overall slowness. The opposite occurs in hyperthyroidism. A person may report feeling restless and more active than usual (hyperactive).
Changes in Body Weight
Another sign of thyroid problems is a change in body weight. As the metabolic rate drops in hypothyroidism, less calories are burned for energy. Without a reduction in calorie intake there is usually moderate weight gain. On the other hand with hyperthyroidism there is unintentional weight loss as the body burns more calories to produce energy. A related change in calorie intake may not cause a significant shift in body weight.
Changes in Temperature
The energy production in the body produces heat as a byproduct. This heat is responsible for the core body temperature and is regulated within a narrow range. With hypothyroidism there may be a slight lower body temperature and an associated sensitivity to cold. With hyperthyrodism there is a slight rise in body temperature and an intolerance to heat.
Changes in Bowel Habit
Bowel habit may also change with thyroid problems. In hypothyrodism the bowel habit may be slower or sluggish and constipation is reported. On the other hand, with hyperthyrodism the bowel habit may be more active or frequent and sometimes there is even diarrhea. These changes in bowel habit may also be influence by dietary and appetite changes associated with thyroid problems.
Changes in Appetite
A change in appetite is often more noticeable with hyperthyroidism. As the bod is consuming more calories for energy production, a person may feel hungry more often. The increase in appetite may occur even with weight loss. With hypothyroidism, the change in appetite is not always as obvious. The body needs less calories and combined with depression that often accompanies hypothyroidism, a person may notice a drop in appetite.
Changes in Skin Moisture
Changes in skin moisture is another sign of thyroid problems that may be noticed. With hypothyroidism there is dryness of the skin, along with dryness and thinning hair as well as brittle nails. With hyperthyroidism there is excessive sweating and therefore the skin is usually moist to touch. There may also be an increase in oil secretion with hyperthyroidism due to overactivity of the sebaceous glands.
Changes in Sleep
Another sign of thyroid problems is a change in sleep patterns and duration. Due to the fatigue, people with hypothyroidism tend to feel sleepy and may find that they need to sleep more often and for longer. However, this does not always alleviate the fatigue and sleepiness. People with hyperthyroidism tend to report insomnia as part of the restlessness and excitability with a raised metabolic rate.
Changes in Cardiovascular Activity
Cardiovascular symptoms are also common in both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. A slow heart rate is seen with hypothyroidism and there may also be an increase in blood pressure (mild hypertension). With hyperthyroidism the heartbeat is rapid and irregular and systolic hypertension may also be noticed. If left untreated, both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can strain the heart.
Change in Menstruation
Women may find a change in menstruation. It can vary from the menses (periods) being too light to too heavy. Sometimes the periods may be missed. These variations may be seen with both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. In addition, women may also experience a difficulty falling pregnant, especially with hypothyroidism.