Thyroid Gland Disorders: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Your thyroid glands may be small but they’re really valuable in a lot of your body’s essential functions. From metabolism to your breathing, the glands’ activities affect the way your body works.

In this article, you’ll learn more about thyroid gland disorders, their common signs, and symptoms, and the best ways to treat or prevent them.

What Are Thyroid Glands?

The thyroid gland releases hormones primarily responsible for the way your body utilizes energy. The butterfly-shaped organ can be found right at the base of your neck.

The two primary hormones produced by the thyroid gland are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones are released into the bloodstream and help to regulate the body's energy levels, growth, and development.

In addition to those functions, the thyroid gland is also essential in releasing hormones regulating vital body functions such as your heart rate, breathing, menstrual cycles, and more.

Now, how does it work?

Using the iodine, you get from the foods you eat, the thyroid gland produces two hormones- thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These two play a crucial role in regulating the body's metabolism.

The production of T4 and T3 is regulated by the pituitary gland, which produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). When the body needs more thyroid hormones, the pituitary gland produces more TSH, and that stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more T4 and T3.

T4 is produced in greater amounts than T3, but most of the T4 is converted to T3 in other tissues throughout the body. T3 is the more active form of thyroid hormone and is responsible for the majority of the metabolic effects of thyroid hormones.

The thyroid hormones act on cells throughout the body, increasing the rate at which cells use oxygen and energy. This is known as the body's basal metabolic rate. It affects many processes in the body, including the heart rate, body temperature, and digestion. The thyroid hormones also play a role in growth and development, particularly in children.

What Causes Thyroid Gland Disorders?

There are several causes of thyroid gland disorders, which can result in the gland producing too much or too little thyroid hormone. Some of the most common causes include:

Autoimmune disease

Autoimmune disorders, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease, can cause the body's immune system to attack the thyroid gland, leading to either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. This is the most common cause of thyroid disorders.

Iodine deficiency

Iodine is an essential mineral that the body needs to produce thyroid hormone. A lack of iodine in the diet can lead to goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland) and hypothyroidism. This is more of a problem in countries that have a low iodine intake and less of a problem in developed countries where iodine is added to salt.

Medications

Certain medications, such as lithium and amiodarone, can interfere with thyroid hormone production, leading to hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy to the neck or head can damage the thyroid gland, leading to hypothyroidism.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy can cause changes in thyroid hormone levels, and some women develop hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. This is often when autoimmune thyroid conditions can develop.

Genetics

Some thyroid disorders, such as congenital hypothyroidism and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2, are inherited and run in families. Genetic risk factors can be assessed by SelfDecode DNA testing, or uploading your ancestry DNA results to SelfDecode.

Also Read: How A Genetic Test Can Help Your Health

Tumors

In rare cases, tumors of the thyroid gland or pituitary gland can cause hyperthyroidism.

The Different Thyroid Gland Disorders

Several different types of thyroid gland disorders are listed below:

  1. Hyperthyroidism
  2. Hypothyroidism
  3. Hashimoto's Thyroiditis
  4. Thyroid Tumor or Thyroid Cancer

Details of the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and prevention of these types of thyroid gland problems are written below.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism happens when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone. This results in an increased metabolic rate and causes a range of symptoms and health problems.

Also Read: How to treat hypothyroidism naturally


Some of the most common symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Increased appetite
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
  • Muscle weakness or tremors
  • Heat intolerance or excessive sweating
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • Eye problems, such as bulging eyes or eye irritation

Causes

Some of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism include:

Graves' disease

This is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the thyroid gland, leading to an overproduction of thyroid hormone. It is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism and affects women more than men.

Thyroid nodules or goiter

Abnormal growths on the thyroid gland can lead to the production of excess thyroid hormone. This can occur in a single nodule or in multiple nodules, which can cause the thyroid gland to enlarge and form a goiter.

Excessive intake of iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral that the thyroid gland uses to produce thyroid hormones. However, consuming too much iodine, such as through supplements or certain medications, can cause the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone.

Thyroiditis

Inflammation of the thyroid gland, which can be caused by a viral infection or an autoimmune disorder, can lead to hyperthyroidism.

Pituitary gland disorder

The pituitary gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) which signals the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone. A disorder of the gland can cause the gland to produce too much TSH, leading to an overproduction of thyroid hormone.

Taking too much thyroid hormone medication

Taking too much thyroid hormone medication can lead to hyperthyroidism. This is often the case with people who have an underactive thyroid.

Rare Cases

In rare cases, hyperthyroidism can also be caused by thyroid cancer or a hereditary condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2.

Hypothyroidism

In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. This can result in a decreased metabolic rate, triggering a range of symptoms and health problems.

Some of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Cold intolerance
  • Constipation
  • Muscle aches or stiffness
  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Slow heart rate
  • Irregular menstrual periods

Causes

Hypothyroidism can be caused by several factors, including:

Autoimmune disorders

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This condition occurs when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, damaging its ability to produce thyroid hormone.

Surgical removal of the thyroid gland

If the thyroid gland is removed surgically due to cancer, nodules, or other conditions, the body will no longer produce enough thyroid hormone.

Radiation therapy

Radiation treatment to the head or neck for cancer can damage the thyroid gland, leading to hypothyroidism.

Congenital hypothyroidism

Some infants are born with an underactive thyroid gland, which can cause developmental problems if left untreated.

Medications

Certain medications, such as lithium, amiodarone, and interferon alpha, can interfere with thyroid hormone production and cause hypothyroidism.

Iodine deficiency

Iodine is an essential mineral that the thyroid gland needs to produce thyroid hormone. A lack of iodine in the diet can lead to hypothyroidism.

Pituitary gland disorder

The pituitary gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which signals the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone. A pituitary gland disorder can cause the gland to produce too little TSH, leading to an underproduction of thyroid hormone.

Hypothyroidism can occur at any age but is more common in people over 60 years old and those with a family history of thyroid disorders. It's also more likely to occur in women due to their autoimmune susceptibility and hormone fluctuations.

Also Read: 7 Causes Behind Low Thyroid Function

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

Also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland, leading to an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). It is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States.

In Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, causing damage and impairing its ability to produce thyroid hormones. Over time, the thyroid gland may become enlarged (goiter) or develop nodules.

Hashimoto's thyroiditis can occur at any age but is most common in middle-aged women. It may be triggered by genetic factors, environmental factors, or a combination of both. Risk factors for developing Hashimoto's thyroiditis include a family history of thyroid disease, other autoimmune disorders, and radiation exposure.


Symptoms of Hashimoto's thyroiditis may develop slowly over time. It may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression

Because these symptoms can be vague and nonspecific, Hashimoto's thyroiditis can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.

Thyroid Tumors and Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid tumors are growths or lumps that develop in the thyroid gland. Most thyroid tumors are benign (noncancerous) and do not cause any symptoms, but some can cause symptoms such as swelling or difficulty swallowing.

Thyroid cancer, on the other hand, is a type of cancer that develops in the cells of the thyroid gland. It is usually detected as a lump or nodule in the thyroid gland. There are several types of thyroid cancer.

The most common type of thyroid cancer is papillary thyroid cancer, which develops from the follicular cells of the thyroid gland. It is usually slow-growing and can be treated successfully if detected early. Follicular thyroid cancer is less common but can also be successfully treated if detected early.

Medullary thyroid cancer is a rare type of thyroid cancer that develops in the C cells of the thyroid gland. It can be more aggressive than other types of thyroid cancer and can also run in families.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer is a rare and aggressive type of thyroid cancer that develops from undifferentiated thyroid cells. It is the most difficult type of thyroid cancer to treat and has a poor prognosis.

Risk factors for thyroid cancer include a family history of thyroid cancer, exposure to radiation, and certain genetic conditions, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN 2) and familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC).

Thyroid gland disorders diagnosis

How Are Thyroid Gland Disorders Diagnosed?

Thyroid gland disorders can be diagnosed through a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests.

During a medical history, your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, family history of thyroid disease, and any medications or supplements being taken. They may also ask about any possible exposure to radiation or if you had recent surgery.

A physical examination may include palpation of the thyroid gland to check for lumps, swelling, or tenderness.

Blood tests can measure thyroid hormone levels, as well as the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). High TSH levels can indicate an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), while low TSH levels can indicate an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).

In some cases, imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI may be used to examine the thyroid gland or detect any nodules or tumors.

If a nodule or tumor is detected, a biopsy may be performed to determine if it is cancerous.

In some cases, additional testing may be needed to determine the underlying cause of the thyroid disorder, such as an autoimmune disorder or iodine deficiency.

Most doctors only assess TSH levels, then if something is not optimal do further tests, however, this can miss many cases of suboptimal thyroid levels.

Thyroid tests to do as a minimum

  • TSH
  • Free T4
  • Free T3
  • Thyroid antibodies
  • Reverse T3

How Are Thyroid Gland Disorders Treated?

The treatment for thyroid gland disorders depends on the specific condition and its underlying cause.

For hyperthyroidism, treatment options may include:

  • Medications to reduce thyroid hormone production or block its effects on the body, such as methimazole, propylthiouracil, or beta-blockers.
  • Radioactive iodine therapy, which involves taking a dose of radioactive iodine, It's taken up by the thyroid gland and destroys the overactive thyroid cells.
  • Surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland.

Depending on the level of hyperthyroidism there are also natural treatment options that can be effective like Bugleweed.


For hypothyroidism, the standard treatment involves daily oral medication with synthetic thyroid hormone (levothyroxine) to replace the missing thyroid hormones. Some natural treatments for hypothyroidism can be read in this article: How to Treat Hypothyroidism Naturally


Thyroid nodules and tumors may require different treatments depending on whether they are cancerous or benign. Treatment options for thyroid nodules or tumors include:

Active surveillance involves monitoring the nodule or tumor with regular ultrasounds or biopsies to ensure that it is not growing or changing.

Surgery to remove the nodule or tumor, either partially or completely, depending on its size and location.

Radioactive iodine therapy may be used for certain types of thyroid cancer. Chemotherapy or targeted therapy may be used for more advanced cases of thyroid cancer.

In addition to medical treatments, lifestyle changes may also help manage thyroid disorders, such as eating a balanced diet, avoiding excessive iodine intake, managing stress, and getting regular exercise.

Complications of Thyroid Gland Disorders

Thyroid gland disorders can cause a variety of complications depending on the specific condition and its severity. Some possible complications of thyroid gland disorders include:

Goiter: A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland that can cause swelling in the neck, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and other symptoms.

Heart problems: Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can affect the function of the heart and increase the risk of heart disease. This includes developing arrhythmias, high blood pressure, and heart failure.

Osteoporosis: Hypothyroidism can cause decreased bone density and increase the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to fractures and other complications.

Thyroid storm: Thyroid storm is a rare but potentially life-threatening complication of untreated or poorly managed hyperthyroidism. It involves a sudden, severe increase in thyroid hormone levels that can cause fever, rapid heartbeat, confusion, and other symptoms.

Myxedema coma: Myxedema coma is a rare but fatal complication of poorly managed hypothyroidism. It involves a severe decrease in thyroid hormone levels that can cause lethargy, confusion, low body temperature, and other symptoms.


Also Read: The Best Way To Test Your Hormones (hint it depends on which hormones you are testing)


Fertility and pregnancy problems: Thyroid disorders can affect fertility and increase the risk of complications during pregnancy, such as miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight.

Mental health problems: Thyroid disorders can also affect mood and mental health, causing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and irritability.

How To Prevent Thyroid Gland Disorders

While some risk factors for thyroid gland disorders, such as age, gender, and family history, cannot be prevented, there are some steps that may help reduce the risk of developing certain thyroid disorders or complications. These include:

Eating a balanced diet: Consuming a diet rich in nutrients such as iodine, selenium, and zinc may help support thyroid function and prevent deficiencies that can lead to thyroid disorders.

Avoiding excessive iodine intake: While iodine is necessary for thyroid function, excessive intake can cause or exacerbate thyroid disorders. Avoid taking supplements or consuming high levels of iodine-rich foods unless directed by a healthcare provider.

Managing stress: Stress can affect thyroid function and exacerbate thyroid disorders. Practicing stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing may be helpful.

Regular exercise: Exercise can help regulate thyroid function and prevent weight gain, which can contribute to thyroid disorders.

Regular medical check-ups: Regular medical check-ups can help identify and manage thyroid disorders early before they become more serious or lead to complications. This is where it is important to check antibody levels as they can start to rise well before the other thyroid markers go out of balance.

Not smoking: Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of thyroid disorders and complications, such as thyroid cancer.

Protecting the neck from radiation: Radiation exposure, particularly in the neck area, can increase the risk of thyroid cancer. Take precautions to limit exposure, particularly during medical procedures.

It is important to discuss any concerns about thyroid health or risk factors with a healthcare provider and to follow their recommendations for the prevention and early detection of thyroid gland disorders.

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