The thyroid gland is a small organ located at the front of the neck. It does an important job of making hormones that control vital functions of your body, such as the way your metabolism works. When your thyroid doesn’t work properly, it can impact the way your body functions — specifically your metabolism.
If your body produces too much thyroid hormone, you may develop a condition called hyperthyroidism. If the reverse happens, you may develop a condition called hypothyroidism. Thyroid disorders are not uncommon in Singapore and thyroid cancer is the 8th most common cancer among women here.
What is thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease occurs when your thyroid is unable to make the right amount of hormones for your metabolism to function effectively.
In the case of hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone), your body uses energy too quickly. We call this an overactive thyroid, in which your metabolism is accelerated. You may experience the following symptoms:
- Unintentional weight loss even if your food intake and physical activity remains the same
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness and anxiety
- An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter); swelling at the base of your neck
In the case of hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone), your body does not produce enough thyroid hormone. Initially, you may barely notice symptoms such as fatigue and weight gain and even attribute them to stress or getting older, but as your metabolism continues to slow, you may experience other symptoms including:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Slower heart rate
- Thinning hair
- Irregular menstrual periods
What causes thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease is often caused by other existing diseases that impact the way the thyroid gland works. These conditions include:
Thyroiditis is a swelling of the thyroid gland; it can lower the amount of hormones your thyroid produces.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an inherited autoimmune condition that attacks and damages the thyroid.
This occurs in 5-9% of women after childbirth and is usually temporary.
Iodine is an essential mineral used by the thyroid gland to make hormones. It can be found commonly in seafood. About a third of the world’s population suffers from iodine deficiency.
Patients with Graves’ disease have an enlarged thyroid gland, whereby the thyroid gland is overactive and produces too much thyroid hormone.
Overactive nodules in the thyroid can cause hyperthyroidism. Thyroid nodules are more common in women than in men.
An iodine deficiency can cause hypothyroidism, but in reverse, excessive iodine can also cause hyperthyroidism, where the body makes excessive thyroid hormones.
Can thyroid disease cause pain?
Considering that thyroid disease is also linked with swelling of the thyroid gland or goiter, it can cause some discomfort, apart from the accompanying symptoms you may experience. You may also experience mild to severe pain in your thyroid gland, or pain and discomfort when you turn your head or swallow food. Finally, your thyroid may also feel tender to the touch.
If you have experienced symptoms that are suggestive of a potential thyroid problem, though, it is imperative that you see an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist for complete assessment and treatment recommendations.
Who is most at risk of thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease can affect anyone irrespective of age and sex. You can be at risk of thyroid disease if you have a family medical history of thyroid disease. You may also be at risk of thyroid disease if you’re living with an autoimmune condition like celiac disease or type-1 diabetes. Here’s a list of the other thyroid disease risk factors you may need to be aware of:
- If you’ve had radiation to the upper chest or neck
- If you’re a woman, especially 60 years old or more
- If you’ve undergone thyroid surgery
- If you’ve received anti-thyroid medications or radioactive iodine
- If you’ve been expectant or given birth within the past six months
What are the treatment options for thyroid disease?
The good news is that all thyroid diseases can be cured, and your thyroid function will return to normal. The treatments will be customized depending on the condition you’re struggling with.
If you’re diagnosed with hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid, you can benefit from radioactive iodine treatments, anti-thyroid medications, or the use of beta-blockers. If you’re diagnosed with a hypothyroid or underactive thyroid, you can benefit from using hormone replacement tablets to replace the thyroid hormone, which your thyroid isn’t making in the required amounts. Note that there are instances when surgical treatments may be recommended for you.
Dr Dennis Chua is an ENT surgeon who is skilled in performing thyroid surgery, including the minimally invasive video assisted thyroid surgery.
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