Hypothyroidism Symptoms and How to Treat Them

Feeling tired all the time? Gaining weight? It might be time to see your doctor to check your thyroid.

About 1 in 300 people in the United States have an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). It’s most common in women over the age of 60.

So what is hypothyroidism, what are the symptoms, and how’s it treated?

What is Hypothyroidism?

The thyroid gland located in your neck produces two hormones that manage how the body uses energy. T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine) help regulate more than weight and energy levels.

They affect body functions such as breathing, heart rate, muscle strength, body temperature, menstrual cycles, and more. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone to meet the needs of your body.

Symptoms

Weight gain and fatigue are the best-known symptoms of a slow thyroid. But there are others, including:

  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Dry skin or hair loss
  • High cholesterol
  • Cold intolerance
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Frequent heavy periods
  • Depression

Diagnosing It

Since signs of hypothyroid can also be symptoms of other health problems, your doctor will check what’s going on by:

  1. Taking a medical history of you and your family (thyroid problems often run in families).
  2. Performing a physical exam to check for symptoms and other possible causes.
  3. Ordering blood work to measure:
  • TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone). Too much of this in your blood means your thyroid is working overtime trying to make the T4 your body needs.
  • T4 (thyroxine). Measures how much T4 is in the blood and available to get into the cells where it is put to use.

What Causes Hypothyroidism?

Many things can cause a slow thyroid. Here are the most common causes listed in order of frequency:

  1. Autoimmune disease results when the body’s immune system attacks its own cells thinking they are invaders. It’s still a mystery why this happens.
  1. Surgery and radiation treatment are usually used to treat nodules, cancer, goiter, and Grave’s disease (an immune system disorder). Even when only part of the thyroid gland is removed, what’s left may not be able to make enough thyroid hormone. The same is true when radiation only partly destroys thyroid function.
  1. Medications can prevent the gland from functioning the right way. Interestingly, drugs to reduce hormones from a too-active thyroid can create hypothyroidism. Common culprits include:
  • Some heart medications (amiodarone)
  • Lithium for bipolar disorder
  • Immune system boosters used in some cancer treatments

Less Common Causes of Hypothyroidism include:

  • Being born without a thyroid or with one that doesn’t function right
  • Having a benign tumor on the pituitary
  • Iodine deficiency
  • Pregnancy (especially in the last three months or after delivery). While this can be dangerous to the woman and the baby, it can also be temporary.

Treatment

If tests show you’ve got hypothyroidism, your doctor will likely prescribe synthetic thyroxine pills to replace the T4 your body isn’t making.

Medicine may change your T3 and T4 levels but hypothyroidism almost never goes away so chances are you will take thyroxin for the rest of your life.

Most people do well on the pills. They do not get in the way of a normal life. You can even take them during pregnancy.

In the Long Run

It can take a while for your doctor to get the dose just right, so make sure you take them as directed. He or she will need to check your TSH level periodically to make sure your taking the right amount of medication.

Be sure your doctors and pharmacist know everything you’re taking. Even supplements can get in the way of thyroid meds. Some foods can, too. A nutritionist can help you figure out if you need to change your diet.

Meet the Author

Todd R. Nelson, MD is a family medicine physician at Aurora Burlington Clinic in Burlington, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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