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What Is Hypothyroidism?

These past several months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough, and many have been tested mentally, emotionally and even physically. You may have occasional issues with depression, anxiety or fatigue as you try to navigate the many changes brought on by the pandemic. Yet, it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms because while they may be a temporary result of changes outside your control, they may also result from changes within your body.

Are you tired much of the time, or do you struggle with your weight? It’s possible that your symptoms could be a result of hypothyroidism.

WakeMed community doctor, Anthony Azzizi, MD, an endocrinologist working at North Hospital, says, “The symptoms of hypothyroidism develop very slowly and are hard to pin down. Most of us would just attribute them to long work hours or not getting enough sleep. If you think there may be more going on, ask your medical practitioner to run a simple test to be certain.”

What Is the Thyroid?

The thyroid is a tiny, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that’s responsible for producing hormones that flow through your bloodstream. These hormones are workhorses — they regulate every tissue and organ in your body and are essential for keeping things like your blood pressure, liver function and metabolism in check.

It’s a lot of responsibility for this small gland — and sometimes things can go awry.

Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, means that the thyroid isn’t making enough of the thyroid hormones. A common condition, it affects more than 3 million people in the U.S. every year, with older women being most likely to have it.

It can’t be cured, but it’s easily managed.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypothyroidism?

When you don’t have enough thyroid hormones — in particular T3 and T4 — flowing through your bloodstream, your entire body slows down a little. That’s why so many symptoms of hypothyroidism are related to low energy and sluggish function.

Common symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Depression
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Dry hair and skin

In some cases, the thyroid gland will appear swollen.

Children who have hypothyroidism can also experience the following:

  • Delays in puberty and growth
  • Slower mental development

Older adults may struggle to pinpoint the symptoms because of other underlying issues.

Dr. Azzizi says, “In the geriatric age group, the usual symptoms may not be present. Often there are other conditions and side effects of multiple medications which make it very difficult to diagnose Hypothyroidism without a blood test.”

What Causes Hypothyroidism?

Autoimmune hypothyroidism, sometimes called Hashimoto’s, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. In this case, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing inflammation and decreased hormone production.

Hypothyroidism can be more common in people with other autoimmune disorders, such as Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease. Other causes include radiation therapy to the neck, previous thyroid surgery, radioactive iodine treatment and the use of certain medications. Often times, it’s unclear why someone develops hypothyroidism.

How Does a Doctor Test for Hypothyroidism?

If you’re experiencing systems of hypothyroidism, it’s a good idea to see an endocrinologist. The doctor will perform a physical exam and check for external signs like swelling of the thyroid gland, and dry hair and skin.

Most likely, the doctor will also order a blood test to check levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone and T4 hormone. This simple blood test can confirm a diagnosis of hypothyroidism.

Doctor Azzizi says, “A simple exam of the neck and a blood test once a year can identify early hypothyroidism before it affects your health.”

How Is Hypothyroidism Treated?

Thyroid issues are usually manageable and hypothyroidism is no exception. Treatment almost always involves taking a daily dose of synthetic T4 in pill form. The synthetic T4 works exactly like your own body’s thyroid hormone.

Your dosage may change over time, as your T4 levels stabilize. In the beginning, you may need to see your endocrinologist every month or two to check your levels. Once things level off, and your symptoms are resolved, you’ll still want to check in once or twice a year to make sure your thyroid levels are in check.

The course of treatment is easy, but it’s also critical. Left unchecked, hypothyroidism can lead to complications like goiter, heart failure, mental health issues and infertility.

Experiencing Symptoms of Hypothyroidism?

At WakeMed, our endocrinologists provide state-of-the-art diagnoses, treatment and management of thyroid problems and other endocrine issues. Contact us at 919-350-7584 to make an appointment today.