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UPMC Expert: Understanding the Thyroid Gland

There are many reasons a person may experience fatigue or a general lack of energy and typically the cause is multifactorial. One possible cause to consider is the activity of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck and is responsible for the rate of multiple processes in the

There are many reasons a person may experience fatigue or a general lack of energy and typically the cause is multifactorial. One possible cause to consider is the activity of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck and is responsible for the rate of multiple processes in the body. Many symptoms of abnormal thyroid function are nonspecific, and, therefore, it is important to talk with a health care provider to determine if a simple blood test is necessary to see if your thyroid may be contributing to your symptoms.

Too Much or Too Little

Your thyroid gland can cause problems when it produces too much thyroid hormone, called hyperthyroidism, or too little thyroid hormone, which is known as hypothyroidism. Both conditions, when left untreated, can have a negative impact on your body systems, which can lead to many symptoms including fatigue or tiredness.

Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, can cause the body systems to slow down and, as a result, you may experience symptoms such as:
– Increase in dry skin
– Feeling colder
– Becoming tired more easily
– Constipation
– Brain fog

When left untreated, hypothyroidism can weaken or slow your heart, which can make you feel tired or out of breath, especially when you exercise. It can also contribute to weight gain due to fluid retention that can occur, in addition to; joint pain, high blood pressure, swelling in your ankles, and higher cholesterol levels which can increase your risk for heart problems.

In contrast, those with hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, have body processes that are sped up. This increase may lead to symptoms including:
– Increase in anxiety or irritability
– Weakness in the arms and thighs that makes it difficult to lift heavy things or climb stairs
– Trembling or excessive shaking
– Sweating and difficulty with hot weather
– Fast or uneven heart beats
– Feeling tired more easily
– Frequent bowel movements

Hyperthyroidism, when left untreated, can also contribute to weight loss, despite normal eating patterns, loss of bone density, and loss of muscle mass. It can also lead to irregular heart rhythms, so it is important to let your healthcare provider know if you are experiencing the above symptoms.

Treating Thyroid Conditions

Fortunately, abnormal thyroid hormone levels can be easily diagnosed, and effective treatment options are available.

If you have hypothyroidism, your provider will treat you with a daily thyroid hormone pill to supplement the underactivity of the thyroid gland. After about six weeks of treatment, your will have a blood test again to make sure the thyroid hormone levels are returning to an appropriate level.

There are several different formulations of thyroid hormone replacement, and it is important to stick to the one your provider prescribes, in order to decrease the fluctuations of your thyroid hormone levels.

With a diagnosis of hyperthyroidism, there are typically three options for treatment. The most common treatment is to prescribe anti-thyroid medications to control the thyroid levels. A second treatment option is radioactive iodine, given in the form of a pill, which destroys the thyroid gland to reduce the amount of thyroid hormone that it is producing. The third option, which is not as commonly chosen, is to surgically remove the thyroid. If you were to have the radioactive iodine treatment or the surgical option, you might need to take thyroid hormone pills, just as those with hypothyroidism do, to maintain a healthy level of the thyroid hormone in your blood.

Many of the symptoms of thyroid disease look like symptoms of other common conditions and, therefore, it is difficult to determine if your thyroid function is contributing to your symptoms. Therefore, if you feel that you are having any of the above symptoms, it is important to discuss this with your healthcare provider. At that point, they can evaluate the situation, order blood work, and if needed refer you to a specialist.

By Amanda Smithgall, CRNP
UPMC Endocrinology

Amanda Smithgall, CRNP, is with UPMC Endocrinology and sees patients at UPMC Williamsport Divine Providence Campus, 1100 Grampian Blvd., Williamsport. To schedule an appointment with Amanda, call 570-320-7848. For more information about endocrinology services visit UPMC.com/EndocrinologyNCPA.