The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located in the front of your neck just under the voice box (larynx). Picture the middle of the butterfly’s body centered on your neck, with the wings hugging around your windpipe (trachea). The main job of the thyroid is to control your metabolism. Metabolism is the process that your body uses to transform food to energy your body uses to function. The thyroid creates the hormones T4 and T3 to control your metabolism. These hormones work throughout the body to tell the body’s cells how much energy to use. They control your body temperature and heart rate.
When your thyroid works correctly, it’s constantly making hormones, releasing them and then making new hormones to replace what’s been used. This keeps your metabolism functioning and all of your body’s systems in check. The amount of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream is controlled by the pituitary gland, which is located in the center of the skull below the brain. When the pituitary gland senses either a lack of thyroid hormone or too much, it adjusts its own hormone (thyroid stimulating hormone, or TSH) and sends it to the thyroid to balance out the amounts. If the amount of thyroid hormones is too high (hyperthyroidism) or too low (hypothyroidism), the entire body is impacted.
Who is affected by hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism can affect people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. It’s a common condition, particularly among women over age 60. Women are generally more likely to develop hypothyroidism after menopause than earlier in life. (I was diagnosed at 37)
How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?
It can actually be difficult to diagnose hypothyroidism because the symptoms can be easily confused with other conditions. If you have any of the symptoms of hypothyroidism, talk to your healthcare provider. The main way to diagnose hypothyroidism is a blood test called the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test. Your healthcare provider may also order blood tests for conditions like Hashimoto’s disease. If the thyroid is enlarged, your provider may be able to feel it during a physical exam during an appointment.
How is hypothyroidism treated?
In most cases, hypothyroidism is treated by replacing the amount of hormone that your thyroid is no longer making. This is typically done with a medication. One medication that is commonly used is called levothyroxine. Taken orally, this medication increases the amount of thyroid hormone your body produces, evening out your levels.
Hypothyroidism is a manageable disease. However, you will need to continuously take medication to normalize the amount of hormones in your body for the rest of your life. With careful management, and follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider to make sure your treatment is working properly, you can lead a normal and healthy life.
What happens if hypothyroidism is not treated?
Hypothyroidism can become a serious and life-threatening medical condition if you do not get treatment from a healthcare provider. If you are not treated, your symptoms can become more severe and can include:
- Developing mental health problems.
- Having trouble breathing.
- Not being able to maintain a normal body temperature.
- Having heart problems.
- Developing a goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland).
You can also develop a serious medical condition called myxedema coma. This can happen when hypothyroidism isn’t treated.
Will I have the same dose of medication for hypothyroidism my entire life?
The dose of your medication can actually change over time. At different points in your life, you may need to have the amounts of medication changed so that it manages your symptoms. This could happen because of things like weight gain or weight loss. Your levels will need to be monitored throughout your life to make sure your medication is working correctly.
Can hypothyroidism be prevented?
Hypothyroidism cannot be prevented. The best way to prevent developing a serious form of the condition or having the symptoms impact your life in a serious way is to watch for signs of hypothyroidism. If you experience any of the symptoms of hypothyroidism, the best thing to do is talk to your healthcare provider. Hypothyroidism is very manageable if you catch it early and begin treatment.