The thyroid gland and its hormones play an important role in the maintenance of several essential bodily functions like regulation of temperature, metabolism, growth, menstrual health, fertility, digestion, and sleep. An imbalance in the secretion of thyroid hormones can have far-reaching effects on the body and its normal functioning. However, diagnosis of thyroid issues is often delayed due to the symptoms being mistaken for other illnesses.
Up to 10% of the human population is thought to suffer from thyroid dysfunction, with a good portion of that number going undiagnosed for considerable periods. To counter this delay in diagnosis, it’s important to address questions like ‘What are the early warning signs of thyroid problems?’ and ‘What are thyroid nodules?’ Some people might also develop nodules and should look for signs of the condition. Given the vast array of complexities surrounding this gland, its functions, and its dysfunction, we detail some of the early warning signs of thyroid problems and also the various types of thyroid nodules, and when to worry about the growths to help you remain watchful and aware.
What is the Thyroid Gland & What Are Its Functions?
- The thyroid gland is a small gland that is situated in the throat. It is situated beneath the hyoid bone and is loosely in the shape of a butterfly.
- It directly pours its hormone secretions into the bloodstream and lacks any ducts.
- The thyroid gland produces two important hormones that play an important role in growth and metabolism - called tri-iodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).
- It also produces another hormone called thyrocalcitonin that helps the gland regulate the body’s metabolism of calcium.
- Body temperature, weight, the strength of the heartbeat, blood pressure, oxygen consumption, brain development, and managing the basal metabolic rate are all important functions of the thyroid gland and the hormones secreted by it.
- So, what is a thyroid doctor called? Well, since the thyroid gland is a part of the body’s endocrine system, the thyroid gland too, is treated by a specialist called an endocrinologist. An endocrinologist that specializes in the illnesses of the thyroid is called a thyroidologist.
Malfunctions of the Thyroid
The thyroid gland can malfunction due to several factors, be it developmental, genetic, autoimmune, or because of malignant reasons. However, there are two main malfunctions of the gland that are related to the levels of the hormones it secretes in the body. These are:
- This condition is characterized by reduced secretion of thyroid hormones.
- What are the early warning signs of thyroid problems? Here, the symptoms of hypothyroidism are to be noted. Its potential symptoms will be covered in the upcoming sections of the article.
- Hypothyroidism can be caused by autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s disease, or due to one of its main causes - Iodine deficiency.
- Sometimes, an inflammation of the thyroid gland called postpartum thyroiditis might occur in some pregnant women, leading to hypothyroidism. In case you’re wondering when to check for thyroid levels after pregnancy, your doctor will usually recommend a test in the 3rd and 6th months after delivery.
- Postpartum thyroiditis is often transient and does not last for more than 12 months.
- Hypothyroidism can also be caused as a side effect of medications and radiotherapy used to treat cancer.
- Hyperthyroidism is characterized by an increased secretion of thyroid hormones.
- There also exist several early warning signs of thyroid problems in the case of hyperthyroidism.
- Hyperthyroidism too can be caused by a variety of factors such as autoimmune disease in the case of Grave’s disease, iodine deficiency in multinodular goiter, and benign tumors in the case of thyroid and pituitary adenoma.
- Side effects of drugs and postpartum thyroiditis can also cause hyperthyroidism.
What Are Early Warning Signs of Thyroid Problems?
Here are some important early warning signs of thyroid problems you shouldn’t ignore:
- Weight Changes
- One of the earliest warning signs of thyroid issues is drastic weight loss or weight gain.
- Since the thyroid gland is associated with the control over the body’s basal metabolic rate, weight is closely linked to thyroid function.
- While mild hypothyroidism will cause mostly unnoticeable weight gain, severe forms of the malfunction can cause drastic weight gain in individuals. This can either be stored fat or retained water.
- On the other hand, hyperthyroidism accelerates peoples’ metabolism and causes significant weight loss.
- Weight loss too depends on the intensity of the malfunction. However, since a heightened metabolic rate can also increase appetite, some people might notice weight gain despite the elevated BMR in cases of hyperthyroidism.
- Heart Rate
- Thyroid function is closely linked with the cardiovascular system and controls important functions such as heart rate.
- Hypothyroidism can cause a reduction in the heart rate due to a lower amount of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream.
- Conversely, hyperthyroidism can cause elevated heart rates due to increased thyroid hormones.
- Hyperthyroidism can also cause cardiac arrhythmias and palpitations in affected individuals.
- This is an important sign tied to hypothyroidism that you should watch out for.
- Reduced metabolic rate, coupled with a reduced heart rate and blood pressure fluctuations can result in an increased sense of fatigue.
- Struggling to stay awake in the morning despite a good night’s sleep, or sleeping excessively are all signs of fatigue and must be investigated.
- Blood Pressure
- Thyroid malfunction is closely related to fluctuations in blood pressure.
- Since blood pressure is a critical factor in health it’s important to know how to balance thyroid hormones using prescribed medications in case you’ve been diagnosed with thyroid malfunction.
- However, most individuals are unaware of their malfunctioning glands in the initial stages. Blood pressure can be an important indicator of a problem.
- Hypothyroidism negatively affects the elasticity of the arteries, which makes the heart work harder to pump blood, causing an increase in blood pressure.
- Similarly, hyperthyroidism too raises blood pressure due to an elevated metabolic rate. Blood pressure happens to be one of the most important signs in case you’re still pondering over what are the early signs of thyroid problems.
- Temperature Sensitivity
- Sensitivity to both heat and cold are established signs of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism respectively.
- Hyperthyroidism causes increased sensitivity to heat due to more calories being burnt in the body due to a high basal metabolic rate.
- Conversely, hypothyroidism can make people feel cold due to the reduced rate of calories being burnt due to a slower metabolism.
- This is also linked to blood pressure fluctuations where hypothyroidism patients experience cold hands and feet, whereas hyperthyroidism patients are left to deal with hot flashes and sweating.
- Sensitivity to heat makes people feel excessively hot even when the weather might objectively be cold, and the opposite occurs in the case of hypothyroidism where the affected person tends to feel cold despite hot temperatures.
- Mood swings and emotional outbursts are common in individuals that suffer from thyroid dysfunction.
- In case you have experienced unpredictable mood swings, along with episodes of anxiety and palpitations, it might be time to visit your physician to get yourself a thyroid test prescribed.
- Tremors & Muscle Tenderness
- Frequent tremors and spasms in your body coupled with nervousness can indicate an early sign of thyroid dysfunction.
- Elevated blood pressure caused by abnormal hormonal levels is linked to tremors and muscle aches.
- Loss of muscle and resultant pain is attributed to both fatigue and increased calorie consumption by the body.
- Thyroid Nodules/Growths on the Neck
- It’s important to understand what thyroid nodules are and when to worry about them as they can indicate certain serious conditions of the thyroid such as toxic multinodular goiter or even cancer of the thyroid gland, however, the chances of cancer are quite low when compared to other illnesses.
- The different types of thyroid nodules are:
- Cysts: These are growths filled with either fluid or semisolid material on the thyroid gland.
- Inflammatory nodules: Chronic inflammation of the thyroid can cause these nodules to appear. They’re most commonly seen in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis disease.
- Colloid nodules: These nodules are merely overgrown thyroid tissue. Though they might grow to become large, they’re benign and not cancerous.
- Multinodular goiter: These nodules either are caused by iodine deficiency or due to unknown causes.
- Hyperfunctioning nodules: Hyperfunctioning nodules are linked to pituitary adenomas - a type of benign tumor of the pituitary gland. They’re autonomous nodules that keep producing thyroid hormones irrespective of input from other parts of the body.
- Cancer: Under 5% of thyroid nodules are cancerous, and it’s quite a rare occurrence.
- Miscellaneous signs
- Both diarrhea and constipation are important signs linked to the digestive system that indicate either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism respectively.
- Insomnia is another important factor that you should watch out for.
- A lack of concentration and forgetfulness too are commonly reported signs.
- Hair loss and thinning of hair are notable signs of thyroid malfunction.
- A loss of libido and menstrual troubles are also reported by several women that suffer from thyroid issues.
- Dry eyes, double vision, redness, and bulging eyes are important ocular symptoms associated with illnesses of the thyroid gland.
- The skin too is affected by anomalies of thyroid function, with the most noticeable feature being either dryness or excessive oil which can both lead to eruptions and acne.
If you notice any of the above-mentioned signs, make sure you pay a visit to your doctor at the earliest. In case they suggest you get tested, don’t forget to mention your medical and family history. Also note that biotin supplements must be stopped at least 48 to 72 hours before your test, in case you didn’t know how long before a thyroid test you should stop biotin supplementation. Follow through with your doctor’s advice and medication to stabilize your thyroid levels.