Hypothyroidism: Diagnoses & Treatments
When your thyroid gland isn’t as active as it should be, you may notice yourself feeling tired and gaining weight. The medical term for an underactive thyroid is hypothyroidism. More common in women and older people, hypothyroidism can have a significant effect on your quality of life, but thankfully effective treatments are available. Take the time to learn about the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism, so you know when to see your primary care physician about this condition.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
The thyroid gland is a small organ located at the front of the neck, just above the collarbones. This tiny gland produces hormones that affect how all the cells in your body use energy. When your thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, you can develop a condition called hypothyroidism, which slows your metabolism and can leave you feeling low in energy.
Here are some helpful terms that can help you understand hypothyroidism:
- Metabolism: The sum of all processes in the body that involve using energy.
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): A hormone produced by the pituitary gland that tells the thyroid to produce hormones that affect metabolism.
- Thyroxine (T4): The primary hormone produced by the thyroid.
Stages and Types of Hypothyroidism
There are two types of hypothyroidism:
- Primary hypothyroidism: Although the pituitary gland produces a healthy amount of TSH to stimulate the thyroid, the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones.
- Secondary hypothyroidism: The thyroid works properly, but the pituitary gland doesn’t produce the hormones needed to stimulate it.
The type of hypothyroidism you have determines the right treatment for you. Doctors can use blood tests to find out whether you have primary or secondary hypothyroidism.
Symptoms and Causes
The most common causes of hypothyroidism are the immune system or a viral infection attacking the thyroid gland. Pregnancy can also cause hypothyroidism. In some cases, medicines and treatments for certain illnesses, such as radiation treatments for neck and brain cancers, can also trigger hypothyroidism.
Here are some of the most common early symptoms of hypothyroidism:
- Constipation or hard stools
- Fatigue and weakness
- Feeling cold all the time
- Weight gain
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Joint and muscle pains
If hypothyroidism isn’t treated, it can sometimes lead to longer-term side effects, such as puffiness in the hands, feet, and face, a slower heart rate, and a lower body temperature.
Prevention and Risks
Women get hypothyroidism more often than men. It is also more common in people over the age of 50 than in younger people.
If you have a family history of thyroid disease, you may be more likely to develop this condition. You’re also at increased risk if you have an autoimmune disease or you have received radiation treatment to your upper chest or neck.
Hypothyroidism sometimes develops during or just after pregnancy. If you have recently had a baby, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for symptoms of hypothyroidism so you can quickly get treatment if you are affected.
Diagnosis and Tests
If you have symptoms of hypothyroidism, your primary care doctor can order blood tests to diagnose or rule out the condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, some doctors recommend screening all older women annually for hypothyroidism.
To test for hypothyroidism, your doctor will take a small sample of blood from your arm. This blood sample is sent to a laboratory, where the levels of the hormones TSH and sometimes T4 are measured. If your TSH level is higher than normal or your T4 is lower than normal, you may have hypothyroidism.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
The most common treatment for hypothyroidism is a medication called levothyroxine. This drug replaces the thyroid hormone thyroxine, which people with hypothyroidism don’t produce in large enough quantities. If you have hypothyroidism, you will probably need to take this medicine for the rest of your life.
Some common brand names of levothyroxine are Levothroid and Synthroid. You may need to work with your doctor over a few weeks or months to find the right dosage for your condition.
Some people take natural thyroxine extracts, which come from the thyroid glands of pigs, instead of synthetic thyroxine. However, for most people, there is no reason not to take synthetic hormones. Talk to your doctor about these options and which treatment plan is right for you.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Lifestyle changes are unlikely to reverse the symptoms of hypothyroidism on their own. If your thyroid is unable to make enough hormones to maintain your health, you will need to take medications to replace them. However, eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise can help you regain your energy levels once you have found the right dose of medication for you.
Your diet can affect how your body absorbs the medications you need to take to treat your hypothyroidism. If you eat a high-fiber diet or a diet that contains a lot of soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, talk to your doctor. These foods may make your body less able to absorb the medication.
Certain supplements have a similar effect on the absorption of thyroid medication. Multivitamins that contain iron or calcium can reduce absorption, as can cholestyramine, which is sometimes prescribed to reduce cholesterol. Talk to your doctor if you take any of these supplements.
One of the main symptoms of hypothyroidism is fatigue. Gentle, regular exercise can help you gradually increase your energy levels. Exercise and a healthy diet may also help you combat the weight gain symptom of hypothyroidism. When you are overweight, you may need to take a higher dose of medication to manage your symptoms. Losing weight could help you reduce your dosage and feel better.
What Type of Doctors to See
If you have symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as tiredness, weight gain, irregular periods, and feeling cold, your first port of call should be your primary care physician. These symptoms are common in many conditions. Your primary care doctor can assess your symptoms and order tests to find out whether you are suffering from hypothyroidism or something else.
Primary care doctors can also prescribe the medication you need to treat your hypothyroidism. However, your primary care doctor might refer you to an endocrinologist if they are unable to bring your condition under control. Endocrinologists specialize in treating conditions that affect your hormones and thyroid.
Hypothyroidism symptoms can have a huge effect on your quality of life, but fortunately, an effective treatment for hypothyroidism is available. Once you find the dose of levothyroxine that works well for your condition, you should soon start to feel healthier and more energetic. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you think you might have hypothyroidism, or you feel that your medication isn’t adequately addressing your symptoms.
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