The thyroid gland is one of the important glands in the human body. Sitting in your neck, this butterfly-shaped gland primarily controls your body’s metabolism. Through the actions of its two hormones, the thyroid gland can speed up your metabolism or slow it down. This means that your cells will produce more energy or less. It also affects your body’s growth rate and has a host of other effects on the body. There are minor changes in thyroid activity occurring throughout the day but we never give our thyroid gland much thought until it become dysfunctional. With minor problems, there may be little to no symptoms. But once the thyroid activity is significantly affected, the symptoms become obvious, causes significant discomfort and can have severe consequences.
As with any medical condition, it is best to treat thyroid problems as early as possible if it cannot be prevented altogether. But most people do not go to a doctor for routine thyroid testing as they would with their blood pressure or glucose levels. Instead it is the signs and symptoms of a thyroid problem that may prompt a person to seek medical attention. Then further testing will be done to confirm whether the thyroid is dysfunctional or not. There are various different types of diseases that can affect the thyroid gland. Most will affect the functioning of the the thyroid gland, either causing an overactive thyroid or an underactive thyroid. Some conditions may not affect thyroid function in any way but there may be physical changes of the gland such as an enlargement or nodules.
Body Weight Changes
Most of us know that thyroid problems cause changes in body weight. With an underactive thyroid gland, there is weight gain because the metabolism is slower than normal. On the other hand, there is weight loss with an overactive thyroid gland. Typically the weight gain or weight loss is unexplained meaning that you are still eating the same amount that you usually do and you are still active to the same degree but continue to gain weight. Furthermore efforts to lose weight like going on a calorie-restricted diet or exercising frequently does not help with weight loss. In most cases of thyroid dysfunction, the weight gain or loss is moderate.
Fatigue is one of the first symptoms of thyroid dysfunction. We all feel tired after a long day at work or sometimes just a bit lazy on some days. But prolonged fatigue is a sign of thyroid problems. Even a good night’s sleep does not shake off the fatigue. Initially it may be just a matter of becoming tired more quicker in the day but eventually fatigue can be present from the time you wake up in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, fatigue is not only a symptom of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). It also occurs in hyperthyroidism although overactivity of the thyroid gland leads to a higher metabolic rate.
While all of us would feel hot or cold when the environmental temperature changes or when we are are very active, in thyroid dysfunction there is distinct sensitivity to temperatures that do not pose a problem to others. With an underactive thyroid there is a sensitivity to cold. The low metabolic rate means that the body does notincrease energy production and heat to stabilize its core temperature. With an overactive thyroid there is a sensitivity to heat as the metabolic rate is high and heat is produced internally. Temperature sensitivity is subjective. But if you have to wear more or less clothing than others to keep warm or cool then you may be suffering with thyroid dysfunction.
Sleep Problems and Depression
Sleeping problems are another common sign of thyroid dysfunction, be it in hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Most people do not attribute it to a thyroid problem at the outset as sleep disorders are quite common in modern life. Therefore it remains undiagnosed for long periods of time and may in fact be one of the first symptoms that arise. A range of mental health conditions also tend to occur ranging from anxiety to depression. As with sleeping disorders, these mental health conditions are not immediately associated with thyroid dysfunction unless it is assessed in conjunction with other symptoms like weight changes, fatigue and temperature sensitivity.
Thinning Hair And Dry Skin
Thinning of the hair is another major sign of thyroid dysfunction. Although there may be pre-existing hair problems and a number of other reasons for hair problems, thinning of the hair in conjunction with other signs should raise the suspicion of thyroid dysfunction. While hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism does not cause complete baldness as such, the remaining hair may be fine and brittle. There may also be changes in the skin texture, moisture and thickness. In an underactive thyroid, the skin tends to become very dry. With an overactive thyroid gland, the skin becomes thin but may be clammy due to excessive sweating.
Other Thyroid Signs
Since thyroid dysfunction affects every cell in the body, a range of other signs may also be seen. This includes:
- Abnormalities in bowel habit – constipation (hypothyroidism) or more frequent bowel movements (hyperthyroidism).
- Alterations in heart rate – slow heart rate (hypothyroidism) or rapid heart rate (hyperthyroidism).
- Changes in appetite – reduced appetite (hypothyroidism) and increased appetite (hyperthyroidism).
- Blood cholesterol levels are higher than normal in hypothyroidism and lower than normal in hyperthyroidism.
- Disturbances in menstrual cycle and quantity of menstrual blood in women.
- Erectile dysfunction in men.
The signs and symptoms that may arise are not unique to thyroid dysfunction. A range of other conditions may present with similar symptoms. Therefore thyroid testing is necessary to confirm or exclude a diagnosis of thyroid problems. Even a visible thyroid enlargement (goiter) and the feeling of thyroid nodules need to be assessed further with diagnostic investigations. These tests include:
- Blood tests – thyroid hormones, thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroid antibodies.
- Radioactive iodine uptake test to measure the amount of iodine that accumulates in the thyroid gland.
- Thyroid scan to visualize the thyroid gland on a computer screen.
Always consult with a doctor if your suspect that you have a thyroid problem. This will allow your doctor to run these tests as soon as possible. Early diagnosis of thyroid conditions leads to prompt treatment. In this way some of the serious complications of thyroid dysfunction can be prevented.