The thyroid is a small gland in the throat that functions as part of the endocrine system. When correctly functioning, the thyroid gland controls metabolism and works in concert with other hormone-producing glands to ensure the correct balance of hormones in the body. Most thyroid disorders are the result of a malfunctioning gland that produces too much, or too little, of the thyroid hormones. Thyroid disorders can be a lifelong condition that requires a careful diet and often medication in order to keep side effects in check.
Hyperthyroidism is one of two main thyroid disorders. People with this condition produce an excess of thyroid hormones, resulting in an extremely high metabolism. This condition can lead to difficulty gaining weight or receiving correct nutrition, as well as other symptoms. People with hyperthyroidism often experience a speeding heart rate, increased sensation of heat, anxiety problems, and sleep disorders.
Hyperthyroidism is sometimes a result of a disorder known as Graves' disease. People suffering from this condition have an enlarged thyroid gland, called a goiter. Graves' disease can also cause eye and vision problems and noticeable thickening of the skin. Other thyroid disorders that result in hyperthyroidism include benign or malignant tumors or glandular tumors. It can also occur if thyroid hormone dosage is set too high.
Thyroid disorders on the opposite end of the spectrum are characterized by hypothyroidism or a very low level of hormone production. The slowing of the metabolism associated with these types of thyroid disorders makes it extremely difficult to lose weight. Symptoms may also include exhaustion, unexplained muscle pains or stiffness, and heavy menstrual periods. Hypothyroidism is often caused by an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto thyroiditis, in which the body does not recognize glandular tissue as benign and attacks it, slowing down thyroid production. Other causes can include some cancer therapies such as radiation, birth defects, or an incorrect dosage of hyperthyroid medication.
Testing for thyroid disorders is extremely important if a person is experiencing chronic symptoms that fit either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Many doctors will perform a basic test called thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH. For people that have severe thyroid disorders, this may be enough to diagnose. However, many experts insist that the TSH is not accurate enough, as people with slight imbalances can still experience serious symptoms of thyroid disorders. If a TSH test returns a low-normal or high-normal result, some experts say that patients should insist upon a full slate of more sensitive tests to better diagnose the problem.