The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that lies below the Adam’s apple, along the front of the windpipe. Even though it is only about 2 inches long, the thyroid produces hormones that affect almost every process in the body. The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, and the hormones produced by the thyroid regulate the body’s metabolic rate, heart and digestive functions, as well as mood and bone maintenance – to name only a few. As a matter of fact, essentially everything, from the growth of the hair and nails to proper brain function, relies on thyroid hormones. 

It is easy to see how a healthy thyroid greatly benefits overall health and wellness; however, thyroid disease is one of the most common ailments found in Americans. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease. According to the American Thyroid Association, one in eight women will develop thyroid problems during her lifetime.  

Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be managed with medical attention. Common thyroid disorders include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, goiter, thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer. 

Hypothyroidism is caused when the thyroid gland produces an insufficient amount of thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism is an excessive production of thyroid hormones. A simple blood test can determine hormone levels.  

Goiter is an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland. A doctor may discover a goiter by feeling the neck and having the patient swallow. Thyroid nodules are lumps within the thyroid. They can be caused by benign cysts, benign tumors or less commonly, by cancer of the thyroid. A doctor may be able to feel thyroid nodules during a routine examination. 

Thyroid cancer occurs more frequently in women than men. Many thyroid cancers are detected after patients ask their doctors about lumps or nodules they have noticed. Others are found during routine checkups. Early detection is extremely important, as most thyroid cancers are successfully treated and cured when detected early.

Unfortunately, many people suffer from undiagnosed thyroid disease because they do not recognize the signs and symptoms of a thyroid disorder. Symptoms that may indicate a thyroid ailment include enlarged thyroid gland; nodules or cysts; fatigue; depression; poor concentration; hair loss; unexplained weight gain or loss; feeling too cold or too hot; nervousness; anxiety; fast heart rate; changes in bowel habits; fluid retention; increased sweating and other symptoms. The symptoms are wide-ranging and may be indicative of other health problems. This helps to explain why thyroid disease is sometimes not diagnosed.

Thyroid issues are not always obvious and many symptoms are nonspecific. Make an appointment with a healthcare provider right away if you experience unusual symptoms that may indicate a thyroid disorder.

Kathy Monroe works with Community Hospital Tallassee.