The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, which is responsible for producing hormones and releasing them into the body. Hormones are chemical signals that can have an affect on cell growth, development and energy metabolism. The thyroid produces the so-called thyroid hormones, which are responsible for regulating the metabolic rate of the body. It is possible for the thyroid gland to be overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism) in producing these hormones; both types of imbalance can cause disease symptoms.
Hypothyroidism is most often caused by autoimmune inflammation of the thyroid gland, called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease, but it can also be caused by certain drugs, radiation treatments for cancer, overtreatment of hyperthyroidism, thyroid surgery, viral infections of the thyroid gland, birth defects and as a complication of pregnancy. Hashimoto’s disease causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland because the immune system mistakenly attacks it. Hypothyroidism is more common in women than in men, and individuals who are over the age of 50 years are generally more likely to develop the condition.
Hypothyroidism may be completely without symptoms in the early stages of the condition. The symptoms of hypothyroidism may take years to become noticeable, so people who are experiencing symptoms may not know that something is wrong for a long time. The more severe the deficiency of thyroid hormone, the more severe the potential symptoms of hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism may present with certain symptoms in the early stages of the condition. Some of these common symptoms include fatigue, constipation, depression, pale skin, dry skin, muscle pain, joint pain, muscle weakness, unexplained weight gain, increased cold sensitivity, heavier flow in menstrual periods in women and hair thinning.
If a person with hypothyroidism leaves their condition untreated, these symptoms may become more pronounced and numerous over time, and new symptoms may also appear. Hypothyroidism can cause an impairment in the sense of smell and taste, swelling or puffiness in the hands, feet and face, a hoarse voice, slower speech and thickened skin. Hypothyroidism can also cause the heart to become abnormally enlarged, and this may show up on a chest X-ray.
A person with hypothyroidism may have a thyroid gland that is shrunken, normal or enlarged, so the size of the thyroid gland is not enough for a diagnosis. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis tends to cause swelling of the thyroid gland, which is called goiter when the lump in the neck is visible, but as the disease progresses the thyroid may shrink to a below-normal size. Blood tests can determine how much thyroid hormone is being produced, and if there is a deficiency in thyroid hormones, the doctor can then begin treatment for the condition.
Hypothyroidism is easily treated by replacing the missing thyroid hormones in the body. The treatment is simple and non-invasive, but in almost all cases of hypothyroidism, it is required to continue treatment for a person’s entire life in order to control the symptoms of hypothyroidism. The only exception to this is in the rare case of a viral infection that causes temporary thyroid inflammation, as opposed to chronic thyroid inflammation like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is much more common.
Hormone replacement therapy for hypothyroidism just involves taking synthetic thyroid hormones orally. Blood tests for hormone levels are required in order to perfect the dosage and monitor the treatment. Symptoms of hypothyroidism can be controlled, as long as the proper hormone levels are maintained. In the rare case that thyroid hormone levels become dangerously low, intravenous medications may be required to get them back up; this situation is called myxedema coma, and it is a life-threatening emergency. Hypothyroidism is not a preventable condition, but it is important to seek medical attention as early as possible if you are exhibiting any unexplained symptoms.