Hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid is common among adults in the United States. Also referred to as underactive thyroid, it is often mistaken for other conditions, making it difficult to diagnose. By understanding this condition and exploring your treatment options, you will be in a better position to work with your medical team to restore your thyroid function and return to optimal health.
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a common condition in the United States, and many people are treated for it each year. Hypothyroidism is troublesome simply because many people who suffer from the condition either have no symptoms or mistake the condition for something else.
The condition, also referred to as underactive thyroid can affect almost anyone, but is more prevalent in women over the age of 35. Diagnosing hypothyroidism and treating it early is the best way to ease the symptoms and restore the body to its normal function.
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What are the Symptoms of Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism symptoms are tricky to spot because they can seemingly occur for unrelated reasons.
Some of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism are:
- Dry skin,
- sensitivity to cold,
- weight gain,
- muscle weakness and
- thinning hair.
Other, less common symptoms may include the development of a puffy face, hoarse voice, pain and swelling in the joints, heavier than normal menstrual periods, depression, impaired memory and goiters. Because these symptoms on their own mimic other conditions, many people with hypothyroidism go undiagnosed for months or even years, not getting the treatment they need.
Some people may exhibit one or all of these symptoms, but the most common reason that people seek treatment is because of the difficulty of losing weight. Many people discover that they have an underactive thyroid during the course of a normal checkup or when preparing for weight loss surgery. Others discover it during pregnancy or during an infertility workup in which doctors try to rule out every possibility for the difficulty in conceiving.
Why is Hypothyroidism a Problem?
To understand why hypothyroidism requires medical intervention, it helps to examine why the thyroid’s function is so important. The thyroid gland regulates the metabolic function and controls the heart, muscle and digestive systems. It is also responsible for brain development and bone maintenance. The thyroid is located at the base of the larynx (voice box) and contains two lobes on either side of the windpipe. When the thyroid is abnormal, it can be felt by applying pressure to the sides of the neck. In some cases, it swells and is visible in the form of a goiter.
There are two abnormalities of the thyroid. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the gland produces too much of the hormone. This leads to massive unintentional weight loss and a rapid heartbeat. Hypothyroidism occurs when there is not enough of the hormone secreted, and sufferers have trouble losing weight and often suffer from infertility, hair loss and a number of other problems.
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What Causes Hypothyroidism?
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This condition causes the immune system to turn on the body and attack its own tissues. In some cases, the body will attack the thyroid, causing it to operate wildly out of control.
Radiation therapy, a medication used to treat psychiatric conditions and iodine deficiency can also contribute to hypothyroidism.
Some pregnant women may find themselves suffering from hypothyroidism, but the condition usually corrects itself after the birth of the child. Left untreated, however, hypothyroidism in pregnant women can cause pre-eclampsia, a dangerous condition in which the mother’s blood pressure rises to dangerous levels. Hypothyroidism is directly correlated with premature birth and cesarean deliveries in women.
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Risk Factors for Hypothyroidism
Almost anyone can suffer from this condition, but some people are more susceptible than others. Women over the age of 60, people who have a family history or who suffer from type-1 diabetes are at increased risk for developing problems with the thyroid glands.
People who have an autoimmune disease or celiac disease are also at increased risk for developing this condition. Finally, people who have been exposed to upper body radiation or have been treated for radioactive iodine are at high risk for developing hypothyroidism in their lifetime.
Many cases of hypothyroidism go undiagnosed, so if you have a combination of certain symptoms, it helps to report them to your doctor immediately. The most common sign of a problem is an inability to lose weight despite healthy eating and regular exercise. They may be tired all the time, even after getting a full night’s rest. They often have difficulty concentrating and may develop depression. Their hair begins to get dry and they find themselves constantly battling dry skin.
If you suspect you may have hypothyroidism, there are a number of tests that can be performed to make an accurate determination. Typically, a physical examination including checking of the glands is required as the first step towards diagnosis, with a comprehensive blood analysis to follow.
This blood test should give your doctor definitive answers about your health and will help reveal whether you have specific indicators or markers present which suggest the presence of thyroid disease. TSH is the most sensitive of these, so if the test detects an elevated level of TSH in the blood, it is a good indication that you have a decreased function in the thyroid.
If, in fact, you have a borderline level of TSH as indicated in the blood test, the medical team at HealthGAINS will likely want to perform more tests to develop a better picture. TSH levels can fluctuate, making it hard to tell if you truly have hypothyroidism or another condition. The doctor may also test for thyroid antibodies, a strong indicator of Hashimoto’s disease. Almost all people who suffer from this disease present with high levels of thyroid antibodies.
Underactive Thyroid Levels
There are three categories of levels when it comes to hypothyroidism and the level that you present will make all of the difference in how doctors proceed with treatment. Based on a study of patients over a period of three years, scientists came to the following conclusions about hormone levels and the possibility of developing hypothyroidism:
Slightly elevated TSH levels (between 5 and 10 mU/L): This is the lowest, borderline level of the condition, and people presenting at this stage are usually advised not to undergo hormone replacement, but to return in six months for follow-up testing. Only about 2% of people with slightly elevated levels will go on to develop full-blown hypothyroidism
Moderately elevated TSH levels (between 10 and 15 mU/L): At this level, most patients will present some symptoms of the disease. Fatigue, hair loss and dry skin are the most common for people with moderately elevated levels of TSH, with a few others finding weight loss a challenge, even with diet and exercise. About 20% of people with levels in this range will go on to develop full-blown hypothyroidism.
Highly elevated TSH levels (over 15 mU/L): This is the most severe of the three levels, and when the TSH levels reach this stage, doctors will absolutely suggest treatment of hormone replacement therapy. About 73% of people studied with levels in this range will go on to develop hypothyroidism within a year.
To determine your range, doctors will conduct a workup that includes blood testing. This testing is the only way to get an accurate measurement of your levels.
How is Hypothyroidism Treated?
Once you have received a diagnosis, our medical team will work with you to develop a treatment plan. While there are different directions that your treatment can take, the main thing your treatment will involve is replacing your TSH, or thyroid-stimulating hormone.
If your condition is permanent, as in people who have Hashimoto’s diseases or another form of thyroiditis, the doctor may recommend surgery to correct or remove the damaged tissue. Although effective at treating the disease, the methodology is severe and irreversible, often requiring regular medication to manage for the rest of the patient’s life.
Additionally, because these medications have been known to cause heart palpitations and interfere with heart medication, many doctors will typically prescribe lower doses of the medication to those with heart disease. Some side effects of these treatments can include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Decreased urination
- Difficult or shallow breathing
- Extreme weakness or fatigue
- Intolerance to heat
- Hives, rash or welts
- Abnormal menstrual cycles
- Racing pulse or heartbeat
- Pain or discomfort in the arms, back or neck
As part of your comprehensive treatment plan, we will not only monitor your thyroid levels, we will work with you to develop a custom treatment plan that accounts for the condition and any side effects that may arise.
Most people report no side effects at all, so it pays to weigh the risks and the benefits of treatment.
Benefits to Hypothyroid Treatment at HealthGAINS
One of the biggest benefits of hypothyroidism treatment is that patients often report feeling better quickly. Most start to see improvement in as little as a week after starting treatment. Another of the major benefits of starting treatment is the reversing of conditions like infertility and obesity. Although not intended as a weight-loss drug, treatment for hypothyroidism can speed up metabolism and increase the rate of caloric burn, leading to weight loss. In turn, the patient can enjoy the benefits of lowered blood pressure, decreased risk of diabetes, lowered A1-C levels in existing diabetes patients and a decreased strain on the heart and major organs.
There have been studies that have shown that treating hypothyroidism can also lead to reversing infertility in women. When the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the hormones needed to stimulate ovulation, women can find it difficult or even impossible to get pregnant. In addition, if the hypothyroidism is caused by underlying causes like immune system abnormalities, treating these conditions can treat both the underlying cause, hypothyroidism and infertility. Treating the thyroid condition has been shown to increase fertility and result in pregnancy during the course of treatment.
Should You Receive Treatment for Hypothyroidism?
There are many factors that may lead to treatment for hypothyroidism, so it is imperative that anyone who suspects that they may be suffering from this condition consult with one of our doctors. As part of your treatment, you not only receive best in class therapies for reducing and reversing much of the damage, you will also be getting help in the form of a comprehensive plan which takes into account your lifestyle and goals.
And because we know that treatment is just the beginning of the healing and not the end, our experienced team of Wellness Concierges can provide individualized guidance and support throughout the healing process and beyond.
Life After Hypothyroidism Treatment
Most people report an increased quality of life after undergoing hypothyroidism treatment. With the effects of fatigue, muscle weakness and joint pain now gone, many former suffers find that they have the energy they need to embark on new fitness routines, enjoy active sports and generally have more enjoyable lives.
Weight loss, a common result of undergoing treatment, often means greater life satisfaction for people who undergo hormone replacement therapy. In addition, people who undergo hormone replacement therapy find that their life expectancy increases, an added benefit of undergoing treatment. Many couples who have struggled with infertility in the past now enjoy an easier route to getting pregnant after undergoing hormone replacement therapy for hypothyroidism.
When it comes to living with hypothyroidism, rest assured that there is treatment available. Whether you are suffering from a mild case that will likely go away on its own or a more serious case that requires medical intervention, your doctor will work with you to ensure that you get the best treatment possible. Our caring team of board-certified doctors, nurses and support staff has years of experience in working with patients who are suffering from hypothyroidism. We will work with you from beginning to end, taking a full medical history and figuring out exactly what is causing your symptoms. If you have been suffering from the symptoms of hypothyroidism, give us a call at 305-682-1818 for a free consultation today.