Thyroid Disorders: A Guide to Symptoms and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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Thyroid disorders are conditions that cause the thyroid gland to stop functioning as it should. These disorders can cause the thyroid gland to become underactive, called hypothyroidism, or overactive, called hyperthyroidism. The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front part of your neck. It creates and releases hormones that control the way your body uses energy. These thyroid hormones affect every organ in your body, including the way your heart beats.

This article will discuss common thyroid disorders. It will talk about their symptoms and causes. It will also discuss the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders.

Hypothyroidism

Close up of the front of a person's neck
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

Hypothyroidism is also known as underactive thyroid. It happens when your thyroid does not make enough of the thyroid hormones that your body needs. Without adequate amounts of thyroid hormones, many functions of your body may begin to slow down.

In the United States, hypothyroidism affects approximately 5% of adults ages 12 and older. It is more common in those who were assigned female at birth and in adults over age 60.

Hypothyroidism can lead to both physical and psychological symptoms. If left untreated, it can also lead to complications.

One of the less common but more severe complications is myxedema coma. This is a serious type of hypothyroidism that causes your body’s functions to slow to the point that it becomes life threatening. Myxedema coma is a serious condition that requires immediate medical care.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is also known as overactive thyroid. It happens when the thyroid gland makes too much of the thyroid hormones. With too much of these thyroid hormones, the functions of your body speed up.

Hyperthyroidism occurs in approximately 1.3% of U.S. adults. It is more common in those assigned female at birth and in adults over age 60.

Hyperthyroidism can cause both physical and psychological symptoms. If left untreated, it can lead to complications including heart issues, fertility concerns, and osteoporosis.

Symptoms of thyroid disorders

Symptoms of thyroid disorders vary depending on the specific disorder.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism

The symptoms of hypothyroidism may develop slowly. You might not notice them for several years. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of hypothyroidism, contact your doctor so they can test your thyroid levels.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

Symptoms of hypothyroidism that may appear later, especially if it is left untreated, include:

  • hoarseness or a low-pitched voice
  • puffiness in your face
  • thinning or patchy eyebrows
  • hearing loss
  • anemia

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism can develop gradually over time or come on suddenly. They may vary from person to person. It is unlikely one person will experience all of the symptoms.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can range from mild to severe and include:

Other physical symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include:

  • swelling in your neck
  • heart palpitations
  • twitches or trembling
  • excess sweating and warm skin
  • red or discolored palms
  • loose nails
  • hives
  • patchy or thinning hair
  • unexpected weight loss
  • eye issues

Causes of thyroid disorders

Thyroid disorders have many possible causes.

Causes of hypothyroidism

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease, or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This autoimmune disease that causes damage to the thyroid gland.

The other causes of hypothyroidism vary. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), they can include:

  • inflammation of the thyroid, or thyroiditis
  • congenital hypothyroidism
  • thyroid surgery
  • radiation therapy of the thyroid
  • certain medications

Iodine deficiency may also cause hypothyroidism, but this is very rare in the United States.

Learn about Hashimoto’s disease.

Causes of hyperthyroidism

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease. This autoimmune disease causes damage to the thyroid gland.

Per the NIDDK, other causes of hyperthyroidism may include:

  • overactive thyroid nodules
  • inflammation of the thyroid, or thyroiditis
  • too much thyroid medication
  • too much iodine in your system
  • a noncancerous tumor on the pituitary gland

Learn about Graves’ disease.

Risk factors of thyroid disorders

You typically cannot prevent thyroid disorders. Certain factors may put you at a higher risk of developing them.

Risk factors for hypothyroidism

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing hypothyroidism. Not everyone who has these risk factors will develop hypothyroidism.

Risk factors include:

Risk factors for hyperthyroidism

Several factors can increase your risk of developing hyperthyroidism. Not all people who are at risk for hyperthyroidism will develop the disorder.

Risk factors include:

  • being assigned female at birth
  • being over age 60
  • having a family history of thyroid disorders
  • having pernicious anemia
  • having diabetes
  • having primary adrenal insufficiency
  • eating large amounts of iodine-rich foods, such as kelp
  • using medication that contains iodine
  • smoking

Diagnosis of thyroid disorders

Diagnosing thyroid disorders typically involves your doctor asking about your medical history. They will also usually want to perform a physical exam.

Sometimes your doctor may want to perform a biopsy to check your thyroid. However, healthcare professionals more often use thyroid tests to test your thyroid levels and diagnose a disorder.

Most likely, your doctor will request a blood test to test your thyroid function. According to the National Library of Medicine, blood tests for your thyroid include:

  • TSH: This measures your thyroid-stimulating hormones. It is typically the most effective test for measuring thyroid activity.
  • T3 and T4: These measure different thyroid hormones.
  • TSI: This test measure thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin.
  • Antithyroid antibody test: This measures antibodies in your blood.

Your doctor will go over the results of these tests with you and discuss any abnormalities they may find in your levels.

Treatment for thyroid disorders

Treatments for thyroid disorders vary depending on the type of thyroid disorder you have and the underlying cause. Discuss all treatment options with your doctor, since they can advise on which may work best for you.

Treatment of hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism has no cure. However, with recognition and treatment, low levels of thyroid hormone can be returned to standard levels in the body. The most common treatment for hypothyroidism is a medication called levothyroxine.

When you begin taking levothyroxine, your doctor may want to check your thyroid levels after about 6 to 8 weeks, per the NIDDK. This will show whether they need to adjust your dose.

If they do adjust the dose of medication, you will most likely require another blood test in a few weeks. Once they find the most effective dose for you, the blood tests will typically stretch to every 6 months, then to 1 year.

Generally, people with hypothyroidism largely manage the condition with medication. Take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Do not stop taking the medication without speaking with your doctor first.

Treatment of hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is typically a highly treatable condition. The main treatments for hyperthyroidism include:

According to the NIDDK, treatment of hyperthyroidism includes:

  • Beta blockers: These can help reduce symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, tremors, or nervousness. However, they do not control your body’s thyroid hormone production.
  • Antithyroid medications: These medications are typically the easiest way to treat hyperthyroidism. They decrease your body’s production of thyroid hormones. Symptoms may temporarily clear completely.
  • Surgery: Healthcare professionals use surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid less often than other treatments. Surgery can decrease your body’s thyroid production. This may lead to hypothyroidism, which is easier to treat but may mean you need to take medication for life.
  • Radioactive iodine: A person typically takes this by mouth, either in liquid or capsule form. It decreases your body’s production of thyroid hormones. Most people who undergo this treatment develop hypothyroidism, which is easier to treat but may mean you need to take medication for life.

Summary

Thyroid disorders are conditions that affect your body’s production of thyroid hormones. These hormones control how your body uses energy. They can affect every organ in your body.

The two common types of thyroid disorders are hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, and hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid. Thyroid disorders are more common in people who were assigned female at birth and are over age 60.

It is possible to treat thyroid disorders with medication or surgery. If you experience any symptoms of thyroid disorders, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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