The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that resides at the base of the neck, produces hormones that regulate metabolism (how the body converts food into energy). If your body is making an abnormal production of thyroid hormones, it may result in thyroid disease. Two main causes of thyroid problems are overproduction of thyroid hormones, known as hyperthyroidism, and underproduction of thyroid hormones, known as hypothyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is sometimes caused by Grave's Disease (overproduction of the thyroid hormones), growths on the thyroid (either nodules or a goiter), inflammation of the thyroid and, in rare cases, pituitary gland malfunction or cancer. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include a feeling of speeding up or nervousness, shaky hands, fast heartbeat, sweatiness, red or itchy skin, frequent bowel movements, weight loss and weakness or tiredness. Treatment for overproductive thyroids is usually antithyroid medicine. However, in more severe cases, doctors may prescribe that radioactive iodine be swallowed by the patient to destroy the harmful part of the thyroid.
Hypothyroidism is caused by the underproduction of thyroid hormones (Hashimoto's Disease), exposure to excessive amounts of iodide (an old treatment for croup in children), high levels of lithium and removal of the thyroid gland. Symptoms of hypothyroidism appear gradually and may include feeling tired, weak or depressed, having lower energy levels, brittle nails, dry skin, constipation, memory problems and feeling cold more often. For women, it may also cause heavy or irregular menstrual periods. To produce enough thyroid hormones, doctors will typically prescribe thyroid hormone pills to make sure your body has enough hormones to regulate.
A thyroid nodule is a growth on the thyroid. A goiter is a swelling within the thyroid gland itself. Most nodules are typically benign—with only five out of every 100 thyroid nodules are cancerous. Most thyroid nodules are small and difficult to detect, but it is possible for larger ones to form. Bigger nodules may result in the swelling of the neck and problems breathing or swallowing. Thyroid nodules are thought to be indicative of hyperthyroidism. Nodules are diagnosed with a combination of blood tests to evaluate how well the thyroid is functioning; a thyroid scan, which uses a radioactive material and a camera to visualize the thyroid; ultrasound to see the number, size and placement of nodules; or fine needle biopsy, where a piece of tissue is removed from the nodule to determine if it is benign or malignant. In cases where cancerous or pre-cancerous cells are present in the nodules, surgical removal is generally recommended.
Thyroid cancer is usually recognized by thyroid nodules or swelling of the thyroid gland (goiter). If there is a benign thyroid nodule, it is called an adenoma. Symptoms of thyroid cancer include hoarseness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, neck pain, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss or coughing. There are multiple diagnostic techniques to identify thyroid cancer, such as ultrasound, fine needle biopsy, nuclear medicine or CT scan. To treat your thyroid cancer, your doctor will likely recommend surgery to remove the cancerous tissue along with possible radioactive iodine treatment. In more serious circumstances, radiation and/or chemotherapy may be required. Note that if any or all of the thyroid is surgically removed, you will have to take replacement thyroid hormones in pill form for the remainder of your life to keep your metabolism functioning at an optimal level for your good health.
If you ever experience consistent trouble swallowing or breathing, feel a lump in your throat or experience ongoing swelling in the neck, please contact our office and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.