Thyroid disorders affect about one in 20 people in the UK. Many of these are living with symptoms that are limiting their enjoyment of life, unaware that this little gland in their neck isn’t working as it should.
I may not be a qualified medical practitioner but I’m in quite a good position to talk about the effects of a thyroid disorder and its symptoms.
My thyroid has been both overactive and underactive, I’ve experienced thyroid issues during my pregnancies and have also had to deal with the appearance-changing effects of thyroid eye disease.
An untreated (or under-treated) thyroid disorder can at best give you minor unwanted symptoms that interrupt your day-to-day life, but at worst can make you feel very ill indeed.
What does your thyroid gland do?
Many people don’t realise the importance of their thyroid gland. Shaped like a butterfly just below your Adam’s apple, it creates the hormones necessary for all the cells in your body to work normally.
It’s pretty vital to your day-to-day functioning as it regulates your energy, hormones and the speed at which your cells work.
In other words, your metabolism.
What are the symptoms?
If you have an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), your body speeds up and everything works faster than it should. You may notice:
- An increase in appetite
- Weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Heat intolerance
- Sore and gritty eyes
For me, it was the dizziness, shaking in my arms and legs and feeling ‘hyper’ that first drove me to see my GP when I was 25 years old.
If you have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) it’s the opposite and everything slows down. This is the most common disorder and affects more women than men. You may notice:
- Depression or anxiety
- Tingling and numbness in hands and feet
- Feeling cold
- Weight gain
- Poor concentration or ‘brain fog’
- Dry skin, hair loss and brittle nails
Both disorders can cause:
- Menstrual problems
- Fertility issues
- Muscle weakness
- Mood swings
- Swollen neck
Have you been feeling tired lately? Not able to lose weight despite dieting? Feeling cold more than usual or experiencing hot flushes? Maybe you just don’t feel your normal self.
Most of us will have experienced some of the symptoms of poor thyroid function at some point in our lives and dismiss them as a current ‘niggle’ that will go away. But if you’re starting to build up a picture of persistent symptoms it might be worth asking your GP to run a blood test to rule out thyroid disease.
A word of advice. If you have already been tested and your results came back clear but you still don’t feel right, ask for a repeat test. My first thyroid function blood test came back negative but thanks to a hunch from my doctor, a second test a couple of months later was a resounding ‘we have a problem here!’
Thyroid eye disease (TED)
This often gets overlooked when people talk about thyroid disorders. It is a cruel disease in that it can drastically alter your appearance by making your eyes appear bulgy and staring.
This can lead to hurtful comments from family, friends, colleagues and even strangers with a result of the sufferer feeling withdrawn.
You may notice the symptoms of thyroid eye disease before the onset of the thyroid disorder – usually, but not always, hyperthyroidism. It was the subtle change in my eyes that finally led my GP to the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism.
Bring on the ‘weirdo’ comments, dry and gritty eyes, light sensitivity and tinted non-prescription glasses.
Sadly, every year 16 in 100,000 women and 3 in 100,000 men are diagnosed with TED.
Causes, diagnosis and treatment
Many thyroid issues are caused by autoimmune disorders where the body attacks itself. In my case it was Grave’s Disease which causes hyperthyroidism. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis causes hypothyroidism.
Other causes include thyroid cancer – which is the 18th most common cause of cancer in women in Europe – and ‘congenital hypothyroidism’ which can begin in the womb.
A blood test will diagnose poor thyroid function. Treatment usually includes tablets – sometimes for life – with some hyperthyroid sufferers going on to receive radioiodine treatment or surgery.
Be prepared for ups and downs even if your blood results are ‘normal’ and close monitoring if you’re pregnant as poor thyroid function can have a detrimental effect on the unborn baby.
Pay particular attention if you’re menopausal – many of the symptoms are the same and at this time of life you don’t want a poor functioning thyroid on top of everything else.
Women are ten times more likely to suffer from thyroid disease than men. So keep track of your symptoms and if in doubt visit your doctor. Thyroid problems are tough, but treatable.
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