Weight gain, hair loss, anxiety, fatigue – these are all common symptoms that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. It’s easy to attribute these symptoms to stress and a hectic life, but there could be a clinical reason for them: a thyroid disorder.
“The thyroid gland has a pretty important role in the body,” says Dr. Kevin Willis, a radiologist with Advanced Shore Imaging in Northfield. “It essentially creates the fuel that makes the body go. If you don’t have enough fuel, your systems will slow down. If you make too much, you’ll go into overdrive.”
Dr. Willis has been involved in the evaluation of many different thyroid disorders. We asked Dr. Willis to shed some light on this mysterious but important gland and what symptoms could signal your thyroid really is the culprit. While these symptoms could mean a thyroid problem, the only true way of knowing is through a blood test and, if necessary, diagnostic imaging to determine if a nodule or thyroid cancer is to blame.
Thyroid Gland: Form and Function
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits on either side of your trachea just below your Adam’s apple. When your thyroid is healthy, you should not be able to feel it.
The thyroid receives messages from the pituitary gland in your brain to release two different types of hormones, TS3 and TS4. These hormones basically control all of your metabolic functions, including your growth and development, heart rate, the speed at which you convert food to fuel, GI tract motility, and more.
The primary symptoms of thyroid disease exhibit as hyperthyroidism (when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone), or hypothyroidism (when the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone). The thyroid could be disrupted by a number of conditions, including Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s disease, thyroid cancer, etc., so it is important to consult your doctor if you think your thyroid might be a problem.
Here are some symptoms to look for:
- Cardiovascular problems: Because your thyroid controls your heart rate, an overactive thyroid could make your heart race, pound or flutter. It can also cause high blood pressure because it increases the force of the heart’s contractions. If your heart is already affected by coronary artery disease, hyperthyroidism can cause angina or even heart failure. An underactive thyroid could cause your heart rate to slow down.
- Weight gain or loss: One of the most common reasons for sudden changes in your weight is thyroid disorder. Difficulty gaining or losing weight could also be signs of a thyroid disorder.
- Swelling in the neck: If your thyroid problems are caused by a nodule or cancer, your thyroid gland could swell and likely be palpable by your doctor. Sometimes a goiter can occur, resulting in a very large and swollen area on your neck.
- Energy and mood: If you’re tired or anxious all the time, this could indicate a thyroid problem. An overactive thyroid can cause you to feel on edge, while an underactive thyroid can make you feel sluggish and depressed.
- Hair loss: Both over- and underactive thyroids can lead to hair loss. Your hair follows a natural cycle of growth and rest. When the thyroid isn’t working, that can result in longer resting stages and excessive hair loss. Usually the hair will regrow once the thyroid problem has been treated.
- Feeling too hot or too cold: Because your thyroid controls your body temperature, you could be oversensitive to heat or cold. If you find yourself sweating or freezing when others are not, this could indicate thyroid troubles.
- Bowel problems: If you are frequently constipated despite eating a healthy diet, this could indicate hypothyroidism because a slower metabolism slows the movement in your intestines. Conversely, if you have frequent and loose bowel movements, you thyroid could be overactive because the food is moving too fast through the body. This is a problem because you are not getting the nutrients your body needs from your food source.
What to Do:
If you suspect you might have a thyroid problem, it’s important to tell your doctor about your symptoms. A simple blood panel will indicate whether your thyroid hormone levels are within a normal range. If your levels are off, you may be referred to an endocrinologist who can prescribe medication or thyroid hormones to bring your levels to a normal range. However, if your doctor feels your thyroid and notices it is enlarged on one or both sides, a nodule could be to blame and an ultrasound is required. Nodules can range from benign colloid nodules to thyroid cancer. Depending on the appearance of the nodule on ultrasound, a biopsy may be warranted. Thyroid problems are more common in women, so if you are a male and experiencing these symptoms it’s especially important to talk to your doctor.
Advanced Shore Imaging in Northfield has the latest GE ultrasounds equipment that can characterize the nodules. The radiologists at ASIA can then use the ultrasound to guide any aspiration or biopsy that may be necessary. To learn more about Advanced Shore Imaging, visit www.advancedshoreimaging.com or call 609.380.4175.
If you are seeking an endocrinologist to treat a potential thyroid disorder, Dr. Vijay babu Balakrishnan with Shore Physicians Group is accepting patients at his Northfield office. To learn more, visit www.shorephysiciansgroup.com or call 609-365-6200.