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January 17, 2006 > What Do You Know about Your Thyroid?

What Do You Know about Your Thyroid?

Hormones play an important role in helping our bodies function properly. They are produced by our endocrine glands, and one of the most important of these is the thyroid. Shaped like a butterfly, this gland is located in the lower part of your neck just below the Adamís apple.

The thyroid makes two important hormones (T3-or thyrozine, and T4-or triiodothyronine). These hormones control how fast your body absorbs food and turns it into energy. They are essential for normal development and growth.

"The hormones produced by the thyroid gland are important for a personís metabolism," says Prasad Katta, M.D., Fremont endocrinologist and a member of the Washington Hospital Medical Staff. "They affect some of the major organs of your body, such as the heart and muscles."

January is Thyroid Awareness Month and according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), more than 27 million Americans have overactive or underactive thyroid glands, but more than half remain undiagnosed.

Dr. Katta reports that diseases of the thyroid are much more common than other problems with endocrine glands, such as diabetes or various hormone-related ailments. Thyroid disease is more common in women than it is in men.

The most frequent disorder of the thyroid gland is called hypothyroidism, in which not enough hormones are being produced by the thyroid. About 10 percent of the population has this problem. It is more than three times as common in women than in men.

"The symptoms of hypothyroidism are very non-specific, including sore muscles, fatigue, dry skin, hair loss, constipation, weight gain and irregular menstrual periods for women," explains Dr. Katta. "People often attribute these symptoms to other causes or think they have the disease when they donít. The best way to confirm the condition is through a blood test, and this is something women should be screened for on a regular basis."

Children who suffer from hypothyroidism may have difficulty with learning and also problems with their growth. Doctors usually test for the disease if a child lags below the normal growth curve.

Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroid hormone taken in pill form. Patients will need to work with their doctor to determine the correct dosage and how often they should be checked to see if the medication is acting properly.

If the thyroid gland produces too much of the hormones, the condition is called hyperthyroidism, which affects only about one percent of Americans. Symptoms are weight loss, diarrhea, heart palpitations, nervousness, anxiety, intolerance of warm temperatures, muscle weakness and menstrual irregularity. In severe cases, if it is not treated, hyperthyroidism can result in death.

"People think the typical sign of this condition is that the patient has protruding eyes, but it is not that common," says Dr. Katta. "The best way to diagnose the condition it through a blood test. Then, further nuclear medicine tests are used to determine how active the gland is."

The most common form of treatment for hyperthyroidism is with radioactive iodine, which destroys part or all of the thyroid gland. Options are antithyroid medication or surgery.

Other problems with the thyroid gland can include thyroid nodules or cancer. Nodules, which are actually an overgrowth of normal thyroid tissue, are about four times more common in women than in men. The risk that we will get this condition increases with age.

Only about two to five percent of thyroid nodules are cancerous, and they usually donít require treatment.

"If the nodule grows to more than one centimeter, we will try to get a biopsy to determine its cause," says Dr. Katta. "In the rare case that it is cancerous, we will remove the thyroid surgically and the patient will go through treatment with radioactive iodine to make sure all the cells are destroyed. Then, he or she will have to take thyroid hormones for the test of their life. These patients also need to follow up regularly with their doctor."

If you have questions about thyroid disease or you think you may have it, Dr. Katta advises that you talk with your personal physician.

For more information about thyroid disorders, visit the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists website at www.aace.com or visit the American Thyroid Association website at www.thyroid.org.

 
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