The thyroid gland is the one responsible for the production of thyroid hormones that every cell in the body needs to function properly. These hormones regulate the body’s metabolism or ability to convert calories into energy, which affects the body’s heart rate, breathing patterns, menstrual cycles, body temperature, blood pressure, and other vital bodily functions. Any disruption in the production of these hormones, either from the pituitary, hypothalamus or thyroid gland, can result in either hyperthyroidism (overproduction of hormones) or hypothyroidism (underproduction of hormones).
The thyroid gland is located in the neck area, just slightly below the Adam’s apple or the protrusion of the thyroid cartilage. It resembles a 2-inch long butterfly, with its wings or lobes wrapped around the windpipe, which are sometimes fused in the middle by a strip of thyroid tissue called isthmus.
As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland produces and releases the hormones Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). It produces such hormones from the iodine that the body takes in from food and iodized salt.
Although the thyroid gland is the one producing T3 and T4 hormones, it is the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands that signal the thyroid to either increase or decrease its production of its hormones. The hypothalamus releases the TSH releasing hormone to trigger the pituitary gland to produce the TSH or Thyroid Stimulating Hormone so that the thyroid gland can produce the T3 and T4 hormones. The amount of TSH released by the pituitary gland indicates just how much or how little hormones the thyroid gland should produce.
Common Thyroid Problems/Conditions
Thyroid-related problems usually occur when the pituitary gland fails to produce the right level of TSH, which leads to either the overproduction or underproduction of the T3 and T4 hormones, resulting in the following conditions:
Hypothyroidism - This is characterized by a lower than normal T3 and T4 hormones count. Its symptoms often mimic other conditions since they are very common. These include fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation, increased cholesterol levels, and cold intolerance. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause pleural effusion (fluid in the lungs), pericardial effusion (fluid around the heart) or an enlarged heart.
Hyperthyroidism - This is the opposite of hypothyroidism that manifests when there is an excess in the production of T3 and T4 hormones. A person with this condition can experience anxiety, nervousness, sensitivity to high temperatures, hair loss, and light menstrual periods.
Common Thyroid Treatments/Procedures
Treating thyroid gland problems usually begin by determining the levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and the hormones T3 and T4 using:
- Blood tests – These determine whether the hormones are in excess or lesser than normal. If the T4 values are low, it may indicate a problem with the thyroid gland since it is not producing enough or a problem with the pituitary gland if it’s not signaling the thyroid with enough TSH.
Radioimmunoassay – This is a sensitive method of detecting and measuring the concentration of hormones. It provides a more accurate measurement of both T3 and T4 hormones that aids in identifying which gland is causing the malfunction.
Thyroid scans and ultrasounds – These are used to detect the presence of nodules and anomalies that may be causing the abnormalities in the production of the hormones.
Treatment Options for Thyroid Problems and Conditions
Medications and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be the most common treatment for thyroid gland problems. While anti-thyroid medications may be prescribed to prevent the overproduction of T3 and T4 hormones, HRT is applicable for patients who experience a lack or insufficiency of the T3 and T4 hormones.
Radioactive iodine and surgery may be required for serious thyroid problems and both require HRT as they have a tendency to destroy or remove the thyroid gland.