Diseases of the Thyroid Gland: What You Need to Know
Our thyroid gland plays a vital role in many body functions by regulating metabolism—the process of breaking down food to create energy. The gland secretes two hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine. These regulate metabolism – a process kept in check by the pituitary gland. An abnormally functioning thyroid gland will produce either too much or too little of the hormones, resulting in an imbalance that is broadly classified as thyroid disease.
There isn’t a typical description for a thyroid disease patient—this condition can affect men and women, the young and the old, it can be congenital or develop with age. Here is an overview of some of the most common types of thyroid diseases:
An abnormal growth of the thyroid gland, goiter can result from:
- Iodine deficiency
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune condition that destroys the thyroid, resulting in less thyroid hormone production. This in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to produce the thyroid stimulating hormone, resulting in thyroid enlargement.
- Grave’s disease, which enlarges the thyroid gland and leads to hyperthyroidism
This autoimmune disorder causes the immune system to attack the thyroid gland and leads to overproduction of thyroid hormones or hyperthyroidism. Diagnosed in about 0.5% of the U.S. population, Grave’s disease more commonly affects those between 30 and 50 years of age and women are eight-times more likely to suffer from this disease. Those who have autoimmune conditions are more likely to develop Grave’s disease. Risk factors include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Pernicious anemia, which results from vitamin B12 deficiency
- Addison’s disease, which is a result of deficiency of hormones of the adrenal gland
- Celiac disease
- Type 1 diabetes
Disease symptoms include irregular heartbeat, diarrhea, goiter, health sensitivity, irritability, muscle weakness, trembling hands, trouble sleeping, and weight loss.
A condition more commonly diagnosed among women (2-10 times more susceptible), hyperthyroidism is characterized by overproduction of the thyroid hormone. About 1.2% of the U.S. population has hyperthyroidism, risk factors for which include:
- Family history of thyroid disease
- Conditions such as pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, or primary adrenal insufficiency
- High intake of iodine-rich food such as kelp or iodine-containing medicines
- Recent pregnancy
- Older age
While disease symptoms vary—nervousness or irritation, insomnia, shaky hands, diarrhea, weight loss, goiter—hyperthyroidism can lead to:
- Blood clots, stroke, or heart failure
- Grave’s ophthalmology, characterized by double vision, light sensitivity, eye pain, or even vision loss
- Osteoporosis and thinning bones
An underactive thyroid gland resulting from an autoimmune disease, thyroid resection, or radiation (among other reasons). Hypothyroidism is characterized by low thyroid hormone production. About 4.6% of the U.S. population is estimated to suffer from hypothyroidism, and similar to hyperthyroidism, women are more susceptible, as are those over 60 years of age. Risk factors for this condition include:
- Thyroid surgery
- Radiation to the thyroid, neck, or chest
- Family history of thyroid disease
- Recent pregnancy
- Turner syndrome
- Health issues such as Sjorgen’s syndrome, pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus
Symptoms may vary – fatigue, weight gain, sensitivity to cold temperatures, constipation, joint and muscle pain, dry skin, heavy menstrual periods, depression, etc.
- Papillary thyroid cancer – The most common form of thyroid cancer, it can occur at any age. This slow-
growing cancer can spread to the lymph nodes.
- Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) – 1-2% of thyroid cancers in the US; originates in parafollicular C cells of thyroid gland, which make calcitonin. This inherited cancer can spread to lymph nodes and other organs and may be related to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia—a syndrome where patients develop thyroid tumors and tumors of the adrenal or parathyroid glands.
- If patients have an inherited form of MTC, they usually carry a mutation in the RET gene. Family members of an MTC patient can get themselves tested for a RET mutation for early diagnosis and surgical removal of the tumor.
- Follicular thyroid cancer – This form, which makes up about 10% of all thyroid cancers, can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck and is more likely to spread to distant organs, especially lungs and bones.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer – This rare and most aggressive form of thyroid cancer is common in those over 60 years.
Checking Your Neck for Abnormalities
Part of any good self-care or preventive-care regimen should be the NECK CHECK. This is something you can do easily at home. All you need is a mirror, some water to drink, and some swallowing.
Be on the lookout for our article on specialists who treat thyroid-related conditions and tests commonly used to diagnose thyroid disease.
- Cleveland Clinic’s thyroid resource: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8541-thyroid-disease.
- American Thyroid Association: https://www.thyroid.org/.
- Information on clinical trials for thyroid diseases: https://www.thyroid.org/clinical-trials/.
Patients Rising acknowledges the important contributions of Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. in this article. Improving patient access is our mission and we are happy to utilize a variety of experts to carry that out.