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Thyroid Conditions

Thyroid Disorders, Conditions, Symptoms and Causes

Thyroid disorders may be congenital (present at birth), or develop later in life. The thyroid gland, located in the front of the neck and below the larynx (voice box), plays an important role in regulating the body's metabolism and calcium balance. With proper treatment, which usually involves hormone replacement therapy, most thyroid disorders can be successfully managed. Through treatment, most thyroid symptoms can be minimized or eliminated.

Common thyroid disorders include:

Hyperthyroidism — Hyperthyroidism is a thyroid condition that refers to an over-activity of the thyroid gland, resulting in too much thyroid hormone in the bloodstream. The over-secretion of thyroid hormones leads to over-activity of the body's metabolism. While the associated thyroid symptoms can be uncomfortable, this thyroid disorder is rarely life-threatening.

Hypothyroidism — Hypothyroidism is the condition in which the thyroid is underactive (i.e., it is producing an insufficient amount of thyroid hormones). Hypothyroidism is the most common thyroid disorder. Severe hypothyroidism can lead to a condition called myxedema, characterized by dry, thickened skin and course facial features. If this thyroid disorder is untreated, thyroid symptoms can continue and the individual is at an increased risk for birth defects in children, heart disease due to elevated LDL and heart failure.

Thyroid nodules — Thyroid adenomas are small growths (nodules) that start in the cell layer lining the inner surface of the thyroid gland. The adenoma will begin to secrete its own thyroid hormone. If the adenoma secretes enough thyroid hormone, it may cause the thyroid disorder hyperthyroidism. If this occurs, treatment for the thyroid disorder is necessary, often requiring surgery to remove part of the thyroid (specifically the overactive nodule).

Thyroid cancer — Cancer of the thyroid occurs more often in people who have undergone radiation to the head, neck, or chest. However, it may occur in people without any known risk factors. Most thyroid cancer can be cured with appropriate treatment. This thyroid condition (cancer) usually appears as nodules within the thyroid gland. Some signs that a nodule may be cancerous include:

  • Presence of a single nodule rather than multiple nodules
  • Thyroid scan reveals the nodule is not functioning
  • Nodule is solid instead of filled with fluid (cyst)
  • Nodule is hard
  • Nodule grows fast

Symptoms of Thyroid Disorders

Thyroid disorders can sometimes be difficult to detect on initial exam as they tend to resemble other conditions or mask themselves as other medical problems. Thyroid conditions have many symptoms that resemble other conditions or medical problems. A physical exam can often reveal a gland that is too small or too large though in many cases the gland is a normal size. For accurate diagnoses and confirmation of thyroid systems, lab tests are typically ordered to check thyroid function.

Thyroid Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Poor weight gain
  • Fast heartbeat (which can lead to heart failure)
  • High blood pressure
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Bulging eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing due to enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) pressing on windpipe

Thyroid Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Dull facial expressions
  • Hoarse voice
  • Slow speech
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Puffy and swollen face
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Sparse, course and dry hair
  • Coarse, dry and thickened skin
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (hand tingling or pain)
  • Slow pulse
  • Muscle cramps
  • Orange-colored soles and palms
  • Sides of eyebrows thin or fall out
  • Confusion
  • Increased menstrual flow in women 

Symptoms of thyroid disorders (nodules and/or thyroid cancer) include:

  • Hoarseness or loss of voice as the cancer presses on the nerves to the voice box
  • Difficulty swallowing as the cancer presses on the throat
  • Chronic or persistent throat or neck pain
  • Breathing problems
  • A cough that does not go away

Causes of Thyroid Disorders

There are several causes of thyroid disorders including hypothyroidism. Frequently, the entire gland is overproducing thyroid hormone. Less commonly, a single nodule is responsible for the excess hormone secretion. 

Additional causes for thyroid conditions and disorders include:

  • Congenital defects
  • Radiation treatments
  • Radioactive iodine
  • Surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid gland
  • Inflammation due to viral infection
  • Medication use (amiodarone, lithium, methimazole)
  • Age and gender
  • Excess iodine
  • Graves disease
  • Excess thyroid hormone intake
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune disorder (Hashimoto's thyroiditis)