Weight gain, fatigue, dry skin, sensitivity to the cold—would you know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism?
What is the thyroid gland?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck, just below the larynx. A gland is an organ that secretes hormones. The thyroid plays an essential role in the body. It controls many hormonal functions and regulates the “speed” at which many of the body’s cells and organs function. It secretes the “thyroid hormones”, including T3 and T4.
What is hypothyroidism?
We speak of hypothyroidism when the thyroid gland becomes unable to produce a sufficient amount of thyroid hormones. This condition is relatively common and manifests itself 5 to 8 times more often in women than in men, and its incidence increases with age. In Canada, roughly 1% of adults are affected by hypothyroidism. In women over the age of 50, this number can increase up to10 to 20%.
The shortage of thyroid hormones has widespread effects on the body’s tissues and biological functions.
How do I know if I have hypothyroidism?
People who have hypothyroidism usually experience a number of symptoms. These symptoms often appear gradually, when the hormonal deficiency is already well-established, and the intensity of symptoms depends on the extent of the hormonal deficiency. Hypothyroidism is sometimes difficult to diagnose because its symptoms can mimic those of other health problems. The drop in thyroid hormones results in an overall slowdown of one’s metabolism (the body’s chemical reactions) and can lead to the following signs and symptoms in adults:
- fatigue or a lack of energy
- swelling of the face
- dry, pale, cool skin
- decreased perspiration
- dry, fragile, hair or nails
- hearing problems
- weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- an intolerance to cold
- low-pitched, hoarse voice
- depression, mood changes
- delayed reflexes
- muscle cramps and stiffness
- slowed heart rate
- menstrual changes
There is sometimes a significant delay between the onset of symptoms and the diagnosis of hypothyroidism.
How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?
To screen for or to confirm a hypothyroidism diagnosis, the doctor will request a blood test to determine the level of a particular hormone called thyrotropin or TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) in the blood. A high concentration of this hormone points to hypothyroidism. This is because another gland, the pituitary gland, is trying to send a message to your thyroid to produce more thyroid hormones, but without success.
There will be a lower quantity of T3 and T4, the two main hormones that the thyroid produces, in your blood—this is a sign of the thyroid’s inability to produce them. Your doctor may also check your T4 levels in order to confirm the diagnosis.
How is it treated?
There is no cure for hypothyroidism; however, it can be effectively controlled. Treatment usually consists in taking synthetic thyroid hormone supplements (T4 derivatives). The medication currently available on the market is levothyroxine.
Levothyroxine must be taken once a day, at the same time every day. Your pharmacist can help you to determine the best time to take it, based on your diet and the other medications you are taking. For best results, you should take it every day without fail, even if you have no symptoms. Results will appear several weeks (about 4–8) after starting treatment.
Levothyroxine is usually well tolerated and causes few side effects.
If you have hypothyroidism, you must take the medication for the rest of your life. Your doctor will periodically check your thyroid hormone levels by asking you to take a blood test. It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions concerning blood tests, as he/she may need to adjust the dose of your medication based on the blood test results.
There are a variety of other treatments for hypothyroidism available on the market—some scientifically proven and some not—that we have not discussed here. If you are planning to use a treatment other than that prescribed by your doctor (for example, a natural remedy), make sure your doctor is aware and approves of your choice. Such products cannot replace the use of levothyroxine, which is essential.
Speak to your doctor if you have any unexplained symptoms similar to those described herein.
Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about hypothyroidism and its treatment.