Thyroid Awareness Month

Thyroid Awareness Month

With January being Thyroid Awareness Month, I want to focus on the thyroid gland – how it helps and how it can cause trouble.

The thyroid is an endocrine gland that makes, stores and releases thyroid hormones into your blood to help control your body’s functions, including body temperature, weight, energy level and heart rate. It is located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple, and is shaped like a butterfly with each wing, or lobe, on either side of your windpipe.

Think of the thyroid gland kind of like a moody teenager. When it is functioning properly everything is just fine; you have energy and you feel good. But when it doesn’t work, life slows down to a crawl. It may be hard to be productive and you just might not feel right. When the thyroid works too much on the other hand you might be overactive. A normal thyroid gland regulates your metabolism; a catch all term for the function of all the little systems in your body that make you, you. 

Just like a thermostat on your furnace or an accelerator in your car, your thyroid gland can get set too high or too low. The most common problem associated with the thyroid gland is when it is set too high.  This is called, appropriately, hyperthyroidism, because of how it makes you feel. With hyperthyroidism your heart can beat faster, you can feel anxious, you might lose weight, the house might feel too warm and your hands might start shaking. There are a number of different causes of hyperthyroidism.

Treating an overactive thyroid depends on the specific cause and can include taking medication to reduce the amount of hormone made by the thyroid gland, taking a radioactive iodine pill that actually kills off the thyroid gland cells or surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland. 

Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid is set too low. Hypothyroidism can be caused by a mistake in your immune system where your own body attacks your thyroid gland. Usually hypothyroidism can be treated with a thyroid hormone replacement pill that is taken every day.

There are also tumors of the thyroid gland; the vast majority of which are not cancer. The ones that are cancer make up about 5 percent. Make sure you have a good primary care doctor and see him or her once a year.

There is one other thing about the thyroid gland that I find fascinating. Just about every country in the world tests newborns for hypothyroidism within the first week of life. This is because there is about a one in three thousand chance that a baby will be born without the ability to make enough thyroid hormone which can lead to permanent intellectual disability and growth failure if not treated. This one small test and simple treatment can save over forty thousand children and their families from a terrible disease every year. When you think about the societal consequences to the disease, that is a remarkable win for all of us.

Contact Richard McNutt, MD, General Surgeon at (920) 965-7411