National Thyroid Awareness Month

For a small gland, the thyroid is a big deal.

Your heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin all rely on one, often-overlooked, butterfly-shaped gland: your thyroid. Located just under your voice box, this little workhorse regulates several body functions and plays a huge role in metabolism — if you need more energy, for example, it pumps out more hormones to deliver it. When you were young, it was also a major driver of your growth and development.

Still, you’ve likely never given it a second thought unless you’ve already had a thyroid condition. And the fact is, 20 million Americans today have some form of thyroid disease. Women are particularly affected, accounting for five to eight times more cases than men. The good news is that most of these conditions are fairly easy to treat. The bad news is that up to 60% of people with thyroid problems are unaware that they have them — and undiagnosed thyroid disease puts you at risk for a number of serious conditions.

January is National Thyroid Awareness month, making this the perfect time to understand the symptoms of thyroid issues and the most common diseases.

Hyperthyroidism (Overactive Thyroid)

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine (T-4). This speeds up your body’s metabolism causing unexpected weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Other thyroid symptoms include:

  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Increased appetite
  • Heart palpitations (unusual pounding)
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • Increased sensitivity to hear
  • Thinning skin
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Shaking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Goiter – swelling at the neck from an enlarged thyroid

Overactive thyroid can also lead to Graves’ disease. This disorder swells the tissues and muscles behind the eyes, which makes the eyes bulge or protrude. Dry eyes, redness or swelling, excessive tearing, light sensitivity, vision problems and reduced eye movement are all symptoms of Graves’ disease.

Treatments for hyperthyroidism include anti-thyroid medication, beta blockers, shrinking the thyroid with radioactive iodine, or — if you’re pregnant, can’t tolerate the medications or don’t want to use radioactive iodine — surgery.

Hypothyroidism (Underactive Thyroid)

Hypothyroidism occurs when the gland doesn’t produce enough T-4 or its counterpart hormone T-3 (triiodothyronine). Early on, this condition may not present any symptoms, but left untreated it can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Hypersensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Hoarseness
  • Puffiness in the face
  • Muscle aches, tenderness, stiffness and weakness
  • Elevated blood cholesterol
  • Thinning hair and dry skin
  • Slower heart rate
  • Depression
  • Forgetfulness

Treating hypothyroidism usually requires daily, lifelong use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine, which reverses the symptoms. Dosage may need to change over time, so it’s important to schedule regular annual exams.

Thyroid Cancer

While fairly uncommon in the U.S., rates of thyroid cancer are creeping upward. Unfortunately, there are rarely any thyroid cancer symptoms in the early stages of the disease. As it grows, however, symptoms can include:

The benefits of a flu shot are numerous:

  • A lump in the neck
  • Voice changes, including hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Neck and throat pain
  • Swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck

Surgery to remove all or most of the thyroid is the most common treatment for thyroid cancer, followed by the daily use of levothyroxine. Other treatment options include radioactive iodine, external radiation therapy, and targeted drug therapy that attacks specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms of hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism or thyroid cancer, don’t wait. At St. Clair Hospital, our physicians and specialists can provide the personal, advanced care you need, right nearby. To find a St. Clair doctor near you, or to schedule an appointment, please visit