Approximately 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and more than half are unaware they have a thyroid condition.

What is the thyroid?

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the lower part of your neck that wraps around the trachea and produces a thyroid hormone. This hormone plays a crucial role in your energy levels, weight, metabolism, heart rate, body temperature, and more. Problems with your thyroid will occur if the thyroid is not producing enough hormone (hypothyroidism) or if it is producing too much hormone (hyperthyroidism).

What are the symptoms to watch for?

Symptoms of thyroid problems can vary for each person. Some people might have noticeable and frustrating symptoms, while others might not experience anything. Here are some symptoms that might indicate that your thyroid is not working properly:

  • Hyperthyroidism symptoms:
    • Enlarged thyroid gland
    • Muscle weakness
    • Weight loss
    • Sleep trouble
    • Sensitivity to hot temperatures or sweating
    • Anxiety and irritability
  • Hypothyroidism symptoms:
    • Fatigue
    • Dry hair and skin
    • Weight gain
    • Sensitivity to cold temperatures
    • Joint pain
    • Slow heart rate
  • Thyroid nodules:
    • Enlarged thyroid gland
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Difficulty breathing when laying flat

Should you still get checked if you don’t have symptoms?

Even without symptoms, your doctor might want to check your thyroid depending on your age, family history of thyroid disease, or exposure to radiation.

How is your thyroid checked?

Doctors will order a blood test that measures hormone levels. These tests are called a thyroid function test, and look at levels of:

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): this detects early warning signs of thyroid hormones becoming too high or low.
  • Thyroxine T4: this is the main form of thyroid hormone and measures if you have hyper or hypo thyroidism.
  • Triiodothyronine T3: this test is more often used to diagnose hyperthyroidism.

In most cases, your TSH level will be the first hormone to be measured, followed by a T4 and T3 test if abnormal measurements come back.

Doctors can also do a thyroid antibody test to identify different types of autoimmune thyroid conditions like lymphocytic thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Imaging tests and physical exams are also an option to check for thyroid disease such as thyroid nodules, which usually do not relate to hormone production. These nodules are caused by an overgrowth of cells in the thyroid gland and might require treatment to decrease the risk of worsening thyroid issues. “Treating thyroid disease can significantly improve quality of life and the overall health of the body. Remember to discuss with your doctor whether you should have your thyroid hormone level checked,” says Dr. Georgia Kulina from Mather Endocrinology at Harbor View Medical Services.

The bottom line

Symptoms of thyroid disease may be subtle, but a malfunctioning thyroid can have a big impact on your well- being. This small gland plays a huge role in the way our body functions, so if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, speak with your primary care doctor as to whether you need to get your thyroid tested.