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Dissecting Thyroid Disorders

An Endocrinologist’s Guide

That butterfly-shaped gland in your neck has a big impact on how your body functions. It helps you use energy and stay warm, and it keeps your organs and muscles working.

But, there is the chance for problems with the thyroid, too. Northwestern Medicine Endocrinologist Ioannis Papagiannis, MD, shares what you need to know about thyroid disorders.

Underactive Thyroids

Hypothyroidism is when you have an underactive thyroid gland. When your thyroid does not make enough of the thyroid hormone, your body's processes start slowing down. When this happens, you might experience:

Thyroid disorders are very common.
— Ioannis Papagiannis, MD
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness or depression
  • Dry skin
  • Constipation

But this list of symptoms is not exhaustive. Dr. Papagiannis says symptoms can vary and be nonspecific. He stresses that you should talk with your primary care physician before considering it a thyroid issue.

Overactive Thyroids

Hyperthyroidism is when you have an overactive thyroid gland. With too much of the thyroid hormone, your body's processes likely speed up. While it is not as common as hypothyroidism, some symptoms you might see are:

  • Nervousness, irritability and anxiety
  • Increased sweating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms and thighs
  • Unintentional weight loss

Treatment for hyperthyroidism can vary. It depends on your age, the type and severity of hyperthyroidism and other medical conditions. Consult a physician if you are concerned that your thyroid might be overactive.

Conditions and Care

Some conditions and terms about thyroid health include:

  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. It is most often seen in middle aged women, but it can affect anyone.
  • Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder. It is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the United States.
  • Thyroid cancer, when found at an early stage, is usually treatable and often cured with surgery.
  • Goiter refers to an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid. A goiter does not always mean that there is something wrong with your thyroid, though.
  • Thyroid nodules are abnormal growths of thyroid cells that create lumps within the thyroid gland. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous, but some of them are.

If you are concerned you have an abnormal thyroid, Dr. Papagiannis suggests that you stand in front of a mirror and swallow. If anything moves abnormally or if your neck looks uneven on either side, seek care.

"Thyroid disorders are very common," Dr. Papagiannis says. "They can happen to anybody. Always talk to your primary care physician if you have a concern."