Experts suspect that most people with a thyroid disease don’t even know that they have one.
If you’re plagued with symptoms such as trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, fatigue, or sensitivity to cold and are unaware of the cause, the fact is you might be suffering from a thyroid disease.
Thyroid disease affects approximately 20 million people in the U.S.
It can affect every system in your body and may dramatically impact your energy levels and mood, so diagnosis is important.
Unfortunately, many of these conditions are generally not preventable and are often hereditary.
“Knowing your family history can help you stay one step ahead of complications from a thyroid disorder and related conditions,” says Dr. Haytham Kawji, board-certified endocrinologist at St. Francis Endocrinology.
If you have a family history of thyroid disease, or any other hormonal condition like osteoporosis or uncontrolled diabetes, your physician will likely refer you to an endocrinologist (someone who specializes in diagnosing and treating hormonal and endocrine disorders).
Two of the most common diseases treated by endocrinologists are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
What’s the difference between hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism?
Both of these conditions have different signs and symptoms, some of which can overlap. But how do you tell the difference between hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism refers to an overactive thyroid that produces too much thyroid hormone, while hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid that doesn’t produce enough of this hormone.
Common signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism include weight loss, anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, trouble sleeping, hand tremors, and muscle weakness.
Your body kicks into overdrive, and you can experience insomnia and become easily hot and flushed. It is more common in women, though doctors aren’t quite sure why.
Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. It is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system perceives the thyroid as a foreign body and attacks it, causing the thyroid to grow and release too much hormone.
As previously mentioned, hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone. Most cases of hypothyroidism are mild, with symptoms including constipation, fatigue, sensitivity to cold, weight gain, dry skin, and depression.
An underactive thyroid can be caused by an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, radiation treatment, or even different types of medication. If your thyroid is removed for medical reasons, such as cancer, you can suffer from hypothyroidism. In the United States, this condition affects around 4.6% of people ages 12 and older.
How are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism diagnosed?
Patients experiencing any of the signs or symptoms above should see their doctor immediately. Based on an evaluation of symptoms and a physical exam, your doctor will often order blood tests to confirm a diagnosis.
A blood test for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is the best screening method for thyroid problems. Because TSH stimulates production of your thyroid hormones, levels will be high when your body is not making enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) and low when too much is being made (hyperthyroidism).
Because of symptom subtlety or overlap, thyroid disease can be difficult to diagnose, Dr. Kawji says. A TSH test can identify thyroid problems before symptoms occur. But if you don’t report symptoms, your doctor may not screen you for thyroid disease.
It’s particularly important to ask your doctor about screening if your family has a history of thyroid disease. Heredity is a factor in Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s disease, and thyroid cancer.
Is one worse or more dangerous than the other?
Not necessarily. You can experience both, although hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism. Both conditions can become a problem during pregnancy, as hormones are in flux. This is why women who have thyroid disease get tested more frequently during pregnancy and may need to be prescribed medication and/or change doses.
How are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism treated?
Enlargement of the thyroid, a condition known as goiter, can happen in both types of thyroid disease. However, the causes and treatments of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are very different.
The treatment of hyperthyroidism starts by addressing the symptoms. Beta blockers are commonly prescribed to help alleviate symptoms. These drugs act to slow heart rate, decrease tremors, and lessen irritability. Other treatments depend on the cause of hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is commonly treated with supplemental thyroid hormone. The synthetic (man-made) version is called L-thyroxine or levothyroxine. The goal is to get your TSH back in the normal range and improve your symptoms.
If you’re struggling with any of the aforementioned symptoms or have a family history of thyroid disease, call 225-635-3269 to schedule an appointment with St. Francis Endocrinology.