The thyroid gland, located in the middle of the neck, secretes hormones that regulate metabolism (the system that controls how the body uses and stores energy). Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone.
The symptoms of hypothyroidism vary widely. Some individuals have no symptoms, while others do. They tend, however, to develop gradually and may include:
- Significant fatigue
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Deteriorating hair health (thinning or dry hair)
- Dry skin
- Disruption of the menstrual cycle, which may affect fertility
- Unexplained weight gain
These symptoms can be caused by a wide range of medical conditions, as well as age, often making hypothyroidism difficult to diagnose. This is why the only sure way to diagnose hypothyroidism is with a blood test.
Causes and triggers
Hypothyroidism is usually caused by a problem with the thyroid gland. Sometimes, certain medications and diseases can lead to hypothyroidism. It can also be caused by a failure of the pituitary gland (located in the brain) to secrete thyroid stimulating hormone.
Individuals most at risk for developing hypothyroidism include:
- Those who are older than 60 years of age
- Those with a family history of hypothyroidism
- Those who have been treated with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications
- Those who have received radiation to the neck or chest
- Those who have had thyroid surgery
- Those who have been pregnant or delivered a baby within the past 6 months
Treatment for hypothyroidism involves the daily use of a thyroid hormone that is prescribed by a health professional. In most cases, treatment is lifelong, since hypothyroidism is not usually something that can be cured. If treatment is interrupted, symptoms will gradually return.
If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to a variety of health issues such as obesity, infertility, joint pain and heart problems. It can also present a risk for pregnant women and their unborn child.
It is safe for women treated for hypothyroidism to try to conceive. Your healthcare provider will likely increase your dose once pregnancy is confirmed, and decrease the dose after delivery.
When should I see a medical professional?
If you are treated for hypothyroidism, be sure to adhere to the blood test schedule established by your healthcare professional. Furthermore, seek prompt medical attention if you present any of the following symptoms:
- Rapid heart rate or tremors
- Irritability or unusual nervousness
- Significant fatigue or low mood
- Muscle pain or heightened sensitivity to cold
For more information:
Thyroid Foundation of Canada