Thyroid disorders are among the most common medical conditions. However, because their symptoms often appear gradually, the condition is often misdiagnosed, according to Dr. Nila Vora, a board-certified endocrinologist at the Loyola Primary Care Center in Darien.
The most common thyroid disorders are overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism and underactive thyroid, also referred to as hypothyroidism. Overactive thyroid develops when the thyroid gland, a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck, produces too much thyroid hormones, which regulates the metabolism – the way the body burns calories to produce and store energy from foods eaten.
Symptoms of overactive thyroid include diarrhea, anxiety, heart palpitations, hair loss, increased appetite and irregular menstrual periods.
The condition is diagnosed through a medical history, a physical exam and a blood test that check the levels of thyroid hormones. Patients may experience the condition again after successful treatment. Therefore, it is important that the thyroid hormone levels are checked regularly. “Left untreated, overactive thyroid can lead to an irregular heart rhythm, osteoporosis and other life-threatening conditions,” said Vora, who also serves as assistant professor in internal medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Treatments that have proven effective include medication and radioactive iodine, which destroys the overactive thyroid tissue. If none of these treatment options succeed, surgery may be recommended.
In the case of underactive thyroid the opposite occurs. The thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones, which then affects many vital functions of the body. Symptoms include brittle hair, dry skin, constipation, fatigue or lack of energy, memory problems and heavy or irregular menstrual periods that may last longer than five to seven days. “The risk of the condition increases with age, with women at highest risk. In fact, one out of every eight American women will develop a thyroid disorder,” said Vora.
Like overactive thyroid, the condition is diagnosed through a medical history, a physical exam and a blood test. Although it cannot be prevented, people can watch for the symptoms, so that it can be treated promptly. The American Thyroid Association recommends that all adults be tested beginning at age 35 and then every five years thereafter. Older adults, especially women older than 50, those with a strong family history of the thyroid disorder, rheumatoid arthritis and type I diabetes also should be tested.
Standard treatment for underactive thyroid includes oral medication on a daily basis. Patients should experience a relief of their symptoms within a few months of starting treatment. Most patients, however, need to take medication for life. Left untreated, the condition also can lead to more serious medical conditions, including heart disease.