That Crazy Thyroid.
The thyroid is so underrated. I mean, hello, it regulates our metabolism. The metabolism of every cell in our human bodies. That’s some pretty darned important business. It truly is a super-powered gland worthy of more attention.
The thyroid is a glandular organ located in the front of your neck that releases crucial thyroid hormones. The two main hormones regulated by your thyroid gland are T3 and T4. Your thyroid communicates with your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (which are situated up in your brain region) to regulate the release of just the right amount of these hormones.
When levels go higher or lower than what is considered to be in the normal range, there is an imbalance happening.
A thyroid hormone imbalance causes symptoms. Nodules, having lumps that may or may not be palpable (felt by touch), and that may or may not be cancerous, cause symptoms. The symptoms of imbalance or nodules can range anywhere in between being annoying, to uncomfortable, to life-threatening.
Here are five thyroid conditions/diseases that I will be indirectly emphasizing throughout this post, by way of possible symptoms:
1. Hypothyroidism – An under-active thyroid, there is not enough thyroid hormone circulating in your body.
If you have your thyroid entirely surgically removed (like I did), you will then have chronic post-surgical hypothyroidism for the rest of your life. Most commonly though, hypothyroidism is the result of an autoimmune process.
2. Hyperthyroidism – An over-active thyroid, there is too much thyroid hormone circulating in your body. It is most commonly the result of an autoimmune process.
3. Grave’s Disease – A condition that exhibits extreme symptoms of hyperthyroidism. It is an autoimmune disease. It is a leading cause of hyperthyroidism.
4. Hashimoto’s Disease – A chronic form of thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid). It is an autoimmune disease. It is a leading cause of hypothyroidism.
5. Thyroid Cancer – Malignant tumor cells of the thyroid. (It is possible to have non-cancerous growths of the thyroid as well — benign thyroid nodules.) Thyroid cancer occurs more rarely than most other cancers. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 22. My family hails from south-central Indiana. An area that seems to have more incidences of thyroid cancer than other areas in the U.S., according to one of my former Endocrinologists at Indiana University Hospital.
What’s The Big Deal?
Why did I feel so compelled to write this post? Well, I see articles, from popular grocery-aisle magazines to various professional medical literature, discussing thyroid symptoms in an overly vague manner. They tend to highlight generic, well-known thyroid issues. (How annoying!) Medical websites can be redundant and too generalized. Certainly not relatable. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to present detailed accounts of real-life symptoms.
Oftentimes, I read that thyroid cancer generally doesn’t produce any symptoms. I had thyroid cancer. I had symptoms – ear pain, radiating tooth pain, headaches, choking episodes – each were actually warning signs, but had been ignored. The fact is, some signs and symptoms are lesser-known. Lesser discussed. My symptoms weren’t the ones you hear most often about. But they were mine, nonetheless. I feel passionate about discussing the less text-book symptoms, such as mine, that could be signaling thyroid trouble for other people. No vague symptom descriptions here!
So, what do I mean by the more discussed, generic thyroid issues? Well, for example, weight gain could be due to having an under active thyroid. We definitely hear about that one plenty, right? You feel cold? It could be a sluggish thyroid! Yep. While it is indeed important information to know, there are other important symptoms that could point to thyroid disease that are a little less main-stream (so-to-speak).
Here are 10 symptoms that could be caused from thyroid imbalance/disease.
Each has been a symptom of thyroid imbalance/disease that I have personally experienced at some point. They are less text-book, but also very real.
1. Achy Legs. I know when I haven’t taken my thyroid replacement pill for a few days. Sometimes I run out and just can’t get more fast enough. My legs begin to ache. Sometimes they throb. Sometimes they cramp. Achy legs, with or without leg cramps, is a symptom that points to hypothyroidism. That’s right, leg aches and cramps could be caused from not having enough thyroid hormone in your body, and not from needing to eat a banana! Although, I’m definitely not knocking the power of potassium!
2. Constipation and/or Diarrhea. Having persistently sluggish bowels (being constipated) is a symptom that correlates with an under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism). Straining, difficult, hard… You get the idea. Meanwhile, persistently experiencing loose stools and/or diarrhea can be a symptom of having too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism). The key word here is persistent. If you’re having persistent bowel difficulties, at either end of the extreme, your thyroid levels might be off.
3. Fast Heart Rate. Clinically known as tachycardia. You notice your heart beat. It beats too fast. Possibly you feel flutters. I have experienced this with hyperthyroid levels, but also when I was unknowingly walking around with an extreme hypothyroid level. Typically though, it correlates with hyperthyroid levels. A faster than normal heartbeat is not normal. Get it checked out. Thyroid levels at high or low extremes can become hard on your heart.
4. Anxiety. This term is so broad. You might have tachycardia. Feel nervous. Feel uneasy. Feel agitated. You might find that you sweat excessively. These feelings are suspicious for hyperthyroid hormone levels. Your metabolism could be out of whack due to thyroid levels, resulting in you feeling a little whacky!
5. Heavy Periods. Hypothyroidism can cause excessively heavy menstrual bleeding every month. I’m talking very, VERY heavy periods. I had no significant cramping with this. Heavy flow? Your thyroid just might be the culprit.
6. Raised Cholesterol. Thyroid imbalance and cholesterol go hand in hand. Who knew?! An under-active thyroid, having too little thyroid hormone, can directly cause you to have increased cholesterol. This continues to be something I have to be mindful of, and I do have to watch more closely what I eat because of it.
7. Puffiness. (Possibly even barely noticeable – but definitely there) Edema of the face, hands, feet and/or ankles. I actually most often notice this when I see a photo of my self! My ankles, my hands and feet, and my fave look visibly puffy. Yikes! I have also noticed my shoes feeling tighter on occasion. Hypothyroidism can be to blame for the (often subtle yet still quite unbecoming) puffiness.
8. Weakness. When I say weakness, I mean it is physically challenging to stand up from a floor position. The body feels heavy. The legs lack strength. It takes more effort to move than it should. Hypothyroid levels can cause this. For me, it is a classic sign I need to up my thyroid replacement hormone.
9. Choking Episodes. Do you seem to choke easily when you are eating and/or drinking? Coughing fits while eating, not due to respiratory or allergy reasons, but with a sensation of choking. I choked while eating frequently, and sometimes severely. This was a major issue for me for years before I knew I had cancerous nodules in my neck. It intermittently remained an issue throughout all my years of treatment. Thyroid nodules, malignant or benign, can protrude enough to press against your esophagus and airway. Thus – the choking. If you feel like you choke while eating or drinking to a bothersome degree, you may need to have some diagnostic medical imaging tests done.
10. Ear Pain. Painful inner ear pain. When you have pain in your ear because of some kind of trouble in your neck, it is known as referred pain. Thyroid nodules, malignant or benign, develop/grow on and around the thyroid gland. The protrusions may then press up against a facial nerve. This may result in intermittent ear pain (not related of course to any otitis or infection that would otherwise explain any pain). I had intermittent ear pain for years before my diagnosis. Interestingly, I also experienced some referred tooth pain for this same reason.
My Humble Advice:
I am definitely not a doctor. (Nor would I want to be one! Haha.) Seek medical advice if you have any of these symptoms, particularly if frequently enough that they have become particularly bothersome. The person you will likely go to with these symptoms is your primary care provider (family physician). You may need to come right own and suggest on your own to your physician that your symptoms might be related to your thyroid. Request a thyroid work-up.
Be relentless in your pursuit for a good doctor. A family doctor can be responsible for and competent in orchestrating a standard thyroid work-up. You just may have to get the ball rolling your self. Advocate for your self. (I use the word advocate a lot…)
If after being worked up for your thyroid symptom(s), you discover you are in need of an Endocrinologist – don’t be afraid to shop around for one that suits you. Just remember: Not all doctors are created equal. Not in their bedside manner, and not in their thyroid expertise. This is certainly something I have discovered for my self.
Endocrinologists are the specialty doctors responsible for managing patients who have thyroid diseases and/or conditions. Endocrinologists are also the specialty doctors responsible for managing diabetic patients. I’ll be frank. Sometimes, Endocrinologists are more focused and/or more knowledgeable of diabetic issues and treatments. They can be less passionate about thyroid concerns. If you can find one who is passionate about thyroid matters, you probably would be better off. They do exist.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Doctors):
I am no thyroid expert. But, I have learned so much. I have been involved in thyroid care and education now for 16 years. Specifically, I have been active in the thyroid health and management of care for my own self. It has been an interesting journey. To date, I have met with 4 Endocrinologists, 4 ENT surgeons and several specialty radiologists at top facilities throughout the Indianapolis area, as well as at the acclaimed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
As you might guess, along the way there have been what I would call bad doctors, and there have been some good doctors too. I have spoken with doctors who mocked me. I have spoken with doctors who didn’t take the time to be thorough. I have met with doctors who were thorough and excellent. I have met with doctors who misdiagnosed. I have met with doctors who dismissed. Who missed things. I have met with doctors who were not precise enough during their treatment. Doctors who were in too much of a hurry. Wait, who am I kidding? All doctors are always in a hurry, because they have to be.
For me the best doctors are good listeners. Good doctors exhibit tact and good bed-side manner. They offer options. They explain. They educate. They treat the person not the disease. They are knowledgable. They don’t downplay your feelings nor your diagnosis.
One of my four prior Endocrinologists was absolutely wonderful in educating me. Dr. Ernest Asamoah. He is passionate about thyroid care. He was caring. He explained everything. He treated me with an individual approach and listened to me. He treated me not just on lab results, but also on how I was actually feeling. Then I moved. Thankfully, I am in a position now I don’t need him like I did before. For the most part, my thyroid disease is currently under control. (Now more than ever!) Still, it’s hard to move away from having easy access to an excellent doctor.
My point in all this rambling is that there are good specialized doctors out there. I hope that you don’t need one, but if you do, educate yourself about your condition. Advocate for your self if you need to. Find yourself a good doctor. Seek second opinions.
Want more thyroid-related material to read? Here is the link to my prior post concerning the fatigue-thyroid connection. It is a quick-read.