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What's the big deal about thyroid?

We hear lots of things about the thyroid gland, but what is the big deal? What does the thyroid gland do? Where is it? This short article is to give you some basic information about the thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front part of the neck. It is located just in front of the windpipe and is very important for hundreds of bodily functions. One of the main functions of the thyroid is to control metabolism or the way the body uses energy. There are several types of thyroid disorders that may be seen.

Many people are aware that if the body has too little thyroid function (underactive or hypothyroidism), then often the person will feel sluggish or tired. Weight gain often is also seen with this condition. Other symptoms that may be seen are hair loss, nail changes, dry skin, constipation (or sometimes loose stools), anxiety, palpitations, difficulty sleeping, feeling cold (cold intolerance) and even changes in memory. The cause may be unknown or may be caused by an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

Another common thyroid disorder is a thyroid goiter. The word goiter just means that the thyroid is enlarged or just larger than normal. This can be due an autoimmune condition such as Hashimoto's or even Grave's disease but also may be due to an underlying vitamin/mineral deficiency or even a nodule or growth in the thyroid gland. This condition is found usually upon physical exam by a healthcare provider. It may cause no symptoms or may cause things such as swelling in the neck or even difficulty swallowing. A thyroid ultrasound may be needed to be sure there are no underlying growths.

Thyroid nodules are also commonly seen. Most often these are small growths that are benign (non-cancerous) that are found in the thyroid gland on routine exam. A thyroid ultrasound is often used to see what the nodules look like and if they are solid or cystic (fluid-filled). Sometimes a biopsy is needed to make sure that nothing is worrisome. Nodules may just occur without reason but are sometimes associated with a vitamin/mineral deficiency.

Grave's disease is a thyroid condition usually associated with too much (or overactive) thyroid production. This is also called hyperthyroidism. Grave's disease is also an autoimmune condition. Symptoms may include bulging eyes, weight loss, palpitations, irregular heartbeat, bowel changes, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, excessive sweating and even itching. Treatments are aimed at controlling symptoms and are usually anti-thyroid medications and beta blockers. Many times radioactive iodine or surgery is needed to destroy the gland so it will stop overproducing the thyroid hormone. Often, this will end up causing hypothyroidism, and the patient will require thyroid hormone replacement afterwards.

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