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January 9, 2008 > Women's Center Evening Lecture Series:

Women's Center Evening Lecture Series:

Diagnosing and Treating Thyroid Hormone Imbalance

Millions of Americans - most of them women - suffer from thyroid diseases. The thyroid is a hormone-producing endocrine gland located in the neck, just above the collarbone. Thyroid hormones help regulate the body's metabolism - the way the body converts food into energy.

"The ratio of women to men with thyroid disease is three to one," says Dr. Aruna Chakravorty, an endocrinologist at Washington Hospital. "Thyroid disease tends to run in families, and it is generally related to autoimmune disorders in which the body's immune system attacks the thyroid gland, disrupting its proper function."

To help women understand the symptoms, causes and treatment of thyroid disorders, Dr. Chakravorty will present a lecture at the Washington Women's Center at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont on Tuesday, January 15 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. To register for the lecture, please call (800) 963-7070.

Dr. Chakravorty notes the most common thyroid disorders include hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones, and hyperthyroidism, in which the gland produces an excess of hormones.

"In hypothyroidism - the most common problem - the thyroid doesn't produce enough hormones to drive the body's metabolism," she explains. "Low thyroid hormone production is usually due to Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease that gradually disables the thyroid gland. Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include fatigue, weight gain, depression, constipation, difficulty concentrating, dry skin and hair loss."

An overactive thyroid gland produces the opposite effect. "With hyperthyroidism, you may feel anxious and irritable," Dr. Chakravorty says. "You may be hungry and eat all the time, yet still lose weight, or be extremely tired but not sleep well. People with hyperthyroidism also may experience a rapid or irregular heartbeat and hand tremors. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Graves' disease, in which the immune system overstimulates the thyroid gland."

Diagnosis of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be made easily with a simple blood test to measure the amount of thyroid hormones in the blood.

"In both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, the symptoms can either come on suddenly or develop gradually," she comments. "Because the symptoms could be caused by a number of other health problems, it's important to have the blood tests done. There are no definitive guidelines for when people should be screened for thyroid disorders, but by age 40 - especially in women and in people with a family history of thyroid disease - I would recommend having a thyroid blood test performed during your annual physical exam."

Because proper thyroid function is an important factor in fertility and in maintaining a pregnancy, Dr. Chakravorty also recommends thyroid testing for young women who are pregnant or who want to become pregnant. "With Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the low level of thyroid hormones can result in multiple miscarriages if left untreated," she says. "It is now becoming more common to check thyroid levels in all pregnant women."

Treatment of both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism is straightforward. For hypothyroidism, patients can take thyroid hormone pills. Patients usually must take the hormones for the rest of their lives, periodically rechecking the blood hormone levels to ensure the dosage is right.

For hyperthyroidism, various medications are available to make the body less responsive to thyroid hormones or to slow down thyroid hormone production. "Depending on the degree of severity in hyperthyroidism, we might use medications for 12 to 18 months and then either adjust the dosage or take the patient off medications and monitor the changes in hormone levels," Dr. Chakravorty notes.

Other thyroid disorders that are less common include an enlargement of the thyroid gland called "goiter," and the development of thyroid "nodules."

"Goiter is a swelling that you can detect by feeling the gland in the front of the neck," Dr. Chakravorty says. "The enlarged gland doesn't necessarily affect hormone production, but you should be tested for thyroid function anyway. Unless the goiter interferes with swallowing or breathing, we generally leave it alone. Some people may opt for surgery if the goiter is unsightly, but surgery does carry risks.

"Thyroid nodules are actually small tumors, and most of them are benign," she adds. "Nodules should be biopsied, however, because there is a 10 percent chance they could be cancerous."

Washington Hospital
Tri-City Voice article re: thyroid hormone

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