The thyroid gland, an organ located just below your Adam’s apple, supplies vital hormones that affect the functioning of every major body system. Usually, the thyroid gland works flawlessly for your whole life. However, sometimes the thyroid gland stops making enough essential hormones. This condition is called ‘underactive thyroid’ or hypothyroidism. Researchers believe hypothyroidism affects about 5% of the American population over age 12. Let’s discover what causes an underactive thyroid, and what you can do to treat it.
WHAT IS UNDERACTIVE THYROID?
The medical term for an underactive thyroid is ‘hypothyroidism.’ When the thyroid gland is underactive, it does not secrete enough thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. Hypothyroidism can occur for many reasons, from immune system problems to issues with the brain’s pituitary gland.
WHAT CAUSES UNDERACTIVE THYROID?
You can be born with hypothyroidism, though it is rather rare. Underactive thyroid can be caused by many things, including:
- Hashimoto’s disease. This is the most common reason for hypothyroidism in the United States. Hashimoto’s disease is an immune system disorder.
- Inflammation of the thyroid, also called ‘thyroiditis.’
- Surgical removal of the thyroid.
- Destruction of thyroid tissue from radiation therapy.
- Congenital hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid that is present at birth).
- Certain medications, including amiodarone for heart problems and lithium for bipolar disorder.
RISK FACTORS FOR UNDERACTIVE THYROID
Some people are more at risk for developing hypothyroidism than others. These risk factors indicate a higher likelihood of thyroid problems:
- Being female
- Over age 60
- Family history of thyroid disease
- Pregnancy or childbirth within the last six months
- Surgical removal of the thyroid gland
- Radiation therapy to the neck or thyroid gland
- Having autoimmune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or Sjogren’s syndrome
- Having type 1 diabetes
- Personal history of other thyroid problems, such as goiter
- Thyroid cancer
SYMPTOMS OF UNDERACTIVE THYROID
When people start gaining weight in middle age, they frequently think they must have a thyroid problem. While weight gain can be a sign of hypothyroidism, it often is not the culprit when it comes to getting the ‘middle-aged spread
Here are some common signs and symptoms of underactive thyroid:
- General fatigue that lasts for weeks or months
- Weight gain
- Cold sensitivity or intolerance
- Very dry skin
- Constant joint and/or muscle pain
- Large amounts of hair loss (often handfuls or clumps)
- Decreased sweating
- Heavy or irregular menstrual periods
- Fertility problems
TREATING UNDERACTIVE THYROID
Your healthcare provider will use a simple blood test to check your thyroid levels. He or she may check the amount of ‘thyroid stimulating hormone’ (TSH) being produced by your pituitary gland. These blood tests accurately diagnose hypothyroidism.
Treatment for underactive thyroid depends on the cause. That said, the usual primary treatment for hypothyroidism is prescription thyroid medication.
When the cause of hypothyroidism is cancer, goiter or some other physical problem with the gland, your healthcare provider may recommend surgically removing the thyroid. If a medication (such as amiodarone) is causing hypothyroidism, your medical team may see if you can switch medications to correct the thyroid problem. You should never stop taking a medication on your own just because you suspect you may have a thyroid problem.
LIVING WITH UNDERACTIVE THYROID
Underactive thyroid usually isn’t curable. Many times, you must take medication for the rest of your life. Dealing with the chronic fatigue of underactive thyroid can make life challenging. It’s important you seek out supportive therapies to help you cope with hypothyroidism. You should exercise regularly (even if you don’t feel like it) because physical fitness can help chase the fatigue and blues away. Support groups and participating in activities with friends also can aid you in living well with underactive thyroid.