What is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism, otherwise known as underactive thyroid, is a condition affecting the thyroid gland, causing it to underproduce thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone plays an important role in the body, affecting the metabolism. In those with hypothyroidism, the metabolic system runs more slowly, resulting in various problems.

Hypothyroidism most commonly affects women, affecting ten times more women than men. The condition can also occur in children.  

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

As hypothyroidism develops, symptoms may not be noticeable, as they are often a natural result of ageing e.g weight gain, fatigue.

However, as the condition progresses, further signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism may develop, including:

  • Dry skin
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Thinning hair/brittle hair
  • Pain in the joints
  • Stiffness or swelling in the joints
  • Irregular or heavy periods
  • Weakness/aching in the muscles
  • General fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Depression

A doctor usually performs a thyroid function test to determine if these symptoms indicate hypothyroidism. In this test, a sample of blood is taken to measure hormone levels.

What causes hypothyroidism?

The thyroid gland can fail to produce enough thyroid hormone for a number of reasons, including:

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own tissues.
  • Hyperthyroidism treatment. In those who produce too much thyroid hormone, treatment seeks to reduce thyroid function. However, the treatment can cause permanent hypothyroidism.
  • Radiation. Radiation therapy in cancer treatment of the head and neck can affect the thyroid gland and increase the risk of developing a thyroid disorder.
  • Certain medication. Particular types of medication can cause hypothyroidism, such as lithium (often used in the treatment of psychiatric disorders).

How can it be prevented?

Anyone can develop hypothyroidism, and it cannot be prevented. However, there are certain risk factors, and being aware of the signs can help with a swift diagnosis.

Women over the age of 60 are more likely to develop hypothyroidism, along with women six months after having been pregnant or having had a baby. Family history of autoimmune disease or thyroid disease can also increase the chances of developing the condition. Those who have undergone radiation therapy in the upper chest or neck area are also at an increased risk, along with those who have undergone thyroid surgery to remove or partially remove the thyroid gland.

What is the treatment for hypothyroidism?

Treatment for hypothyroidism seeks to raise thyroid hormone levels. This is normally achieved through hormone replacement, which is generally taken lifelong. However, with hormone replacement, patients are able to live normal, and healthy lives.

It is important to make sure hypothyroidism is treated correctly. If the condition goes untreated, it can cause medical complications such as heart disease, and goitre (enlarged thyroid). 

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