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January – Thyroid Awareness Month

What is the thyroid gland?

The thyroid is located below the Adam's apple at the base of the neck. It is a small gland that can be found in front of the windpipe and consists of two lobes resembling a butterfly. The thyroid produces several hormones that impact metabolism, growth and development and body temperature.

What problems can occur with the thyroid?

Problems exist when the thyroid gland produces an abnormal amount of thyroid hormones. An overproduction can cause hyperthyroidism while an insufficient amount can create a condition called hypothyroidism. It may be difficult to determine if the thyroid gland is working properly which causes many people to go undiagnosed. Disorders can vary from a small, harmless enlarged gland called a goiter, which does not require treatment, to advanced stage life-threatening cancer. Thyroid nodules can also develop. While anyone can suffer from a thyroid disorder, more women are affected than men and the risk will increase with age. At this time, there is no way to stop the onset of thyroid problems but early diagnosis and treatment can prevent it from becoming serious.

  • Hyperthyroidism is caused by an over production of thyroid hormones. People with hyperthyroidism can experience rapid weight loss, high blood pressure, have trouble sleeping and can battle anxiety issues. The following conditions can result.
    • Graves' Disease: An immune system disorder caused by the production of too much thyroid hormone. A sign of Graves’ disease is having bulging eyes.
    • Toxic Adenomas: A disorder caused by the growth of thyroid nodules that may secrete hormones.
    • Subacute Thyroiditis: An acute inflammatory disease that causes pain in the thyroid gland. Pain could be experienced in other parts of the neck, ears or jaw. This condition could last weeks or potentially for months.
  • Hypothyroidism is a result of an underactive thyroid which can negatively affect an individual’s energy level. Decreased heart rate, chronic fatigue, weight gain, depression and constipation are some of the symptoms that exist with this disorder. Listed below are some hypothyroid conditions.
    • Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: An autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and slowly destroys the thyroid tissue. The damage can result in a thyroid hormone deficiency.
    • Central or Pituitary Hypothyroiditis: Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced by the pituitary gland. If there is a problem with the pituitary gland or hypothalamus, it could potentially cause hypothyroidism
    • Congenital Hypothyroidism: This is a pediatric condition where infants are born with a thyroid or enzyme dysfunction that will not allow a sufficient production of thyroid hormone. These infant are inactive, sleep for a lengthy time period and have a suppressed appetite.
  • Thyroid nodules are common and will be present most often in people without hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Nodules are either felt during an exam or more likely discovered incidentally during another imaging procedure in the neck. They require investigation despite not being symptomatic. Based on the size of the nodules, a biopsy may be indicated to exclude the possibility of cancer.

There is good news. Once a person has been diagnosed, they can begin treatment. There are conventional treatments available.

  • For hyperthyroid conditions, medication, radioactive iodide treatment or surgery can be employed to reduce or halt the production of the thyroid hormone.
  • For hypothyroid conditions, medication cannot increase the production; therefore hormone replacement could be a solution.

According to Dr. Tom Connally, the Medical Director of the Norman Regional Health System Endocrine Surgery Program and a pioneer in the area of minimally-invasive thyroid and parathyroid surgeries, "It is important to discuss your options with a physician to determine the most effective method for you based on your situation, age, health and medical history. If you are going to require thyroid surgery, you should seek a high volume endocrine surgeon for best operative outcomes."