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Up and down the thyroid!                                              May 2009

Up and down the thyroid!

ThyroidAs we get older, we have to accept that some things stop working well. This can include the thyroid gland. This is an important gland where the right level of activity is vital - problems arise when it starts to under or over perform.

Under performing thyroid

According to Bupa’s health information team, around 19 in every 1,000 women and 1 in every 1,000 men will suffer from an underperforming thyroid gland at some point in their lives.

The problem is known as hypothyroidism and it can take time to diagnose, so it is worth being aware of the causes and symptoms.

The thyroid gland is found at the bottom of the front of your neck just below the larynx. It is an endocrine gland which secretes two hormones into the bloodstream; thyroxine and triiodothyronine. These hormones are vital in regulating our metabolism; a very important aspect of our lives which control how quickly we use up energy. They also affect our internal body reactions.

The symptoms of an underperforming thyroid can be difficult to diagnose initially because they can develop slowly and are often very mild to begin with. As you can imagine, if your metabolism is slowing down, then a wide range of changes will occur. These can include a thinning of hair, a dry skin, a general lethargy and feeling of tiredness. Other problems can be depression, difficulties with concentration, weight gain and feeling cold.

So many of these symptoms are often just passed off as a normal hiccup in general wellbeing, or sometimes the symptoms can be attributed to another factor. Either way, some people can go a long time without hypothyroidism being diagnosed. Once you have visited the doctor, and possibly had a small blood test to assess the levels of hormones in your blood, you can get a correct diagnosis.

The good news is that once hypothyroidism has been diagnosed, treatment is very effective. Often a thyroxine replacement will be given, usually in tablet form, and once the correct dose is established, the results are usually very good indeed.

Side effects are minimal because the treatment is simply replacing a hormone that you need.

Over performing thyroid

At the other end of the scale, there is also a condition called hyperthyroidism, or Graves’ disease. This is when the thyroid gland is over active and producing too much hormone. The symptoms here can include an over abundance of energy, weight loss, over heating and possible heart palpitations. Anxiety can also be another symptom.

Hyperthyroidism is less common than an under performing thyroid, and is often caused when the body’s defences decide your own tissue is an invader and start to attack it, stimulating the thyroid to produce more hormones.

Treatment here is to reduce the level of thyroxine to normal and medicines are very effective. In the UK, a common medication for hyperthyroidism is carbimazole which reduces thyroid production.

Another treatment is radio-iodine which destroys some thyroid tissue to reduce the amount of thyroxine you can make. The dose of radioactivity is very low and not dangerous. Surgery can also be an option, to remove part of the thyroid gland.

The main message re thyroids is that if you have some unexplained symptoms, especially those that could be related to your metabolism, then it is worth considering your thyroid. Either way, go and see your doctor as today diagnosis of both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism is reasonably straightforward.

More information is available from:

British Thyroid Foundation
British Thyroid Association

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