Common Thyroid Disorders and Thyroid Self-Examination
Periodic self-examination steps to help detect thyroid disorders
What Does the Thyroid Gland Do?
The thyroid is an endocrine gland located at the base of the neck that is small, but has a variety of functions. Generally speaking, the thyroid gland helps the body regulate its metabolism (how your body uses energy) by releasing thyroid hormones. If the thyroid gland is underactive or overactive, various functions in the body can become abnormal.
For example, if you are hypothyroid (underactive), you might have unexplained weight gain, weak or slow heartbeat, fatigue, slow reflexes, memory problems, depression, constipation, thick/puffy/dry skin, or difficulty with cold temperatures. In contrast, if you are hyperthyroid, you may experience symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, insomnia, diarrhea, and difficulty with warm temperatures.
Because the range of symptoms of thyroid disorders is varied and differs from person to person, diagnosing thyroid disorders can sometimes be challenging.
What Are Common Disorders of the Thyroid?
Common disorders of the thyroid include the following:
- Hormone imbalance: The thyroid gland may produce too little (hypothyroidism) or too much (hyperthyroidism) thyroid hormone. This imbalance may be treated with oral medications.
- Nodules or lumps in the thyroid: Small growths in the thyroid gland may occur and are common. They are often benign and do not cause any other issues.
- Goiter: Generalized swelling or bulging in the thyroid gland is referred to as a goiter. A goiter may occur in someone with a hormone imbalance (overactive or underactive), but can also occur in someone with no hormone imbalance or other symptoms.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: This autoimmune condition (the body mistakenly attacks cells in the thyroid gland) causes inflammation in the thyroid gland and is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. It may also cause a goiter.
- Graves’ disease: This autoimmune condition is a common cause of hyperthyroidism. It also may cause inflammation and swelling of the tissue around the eyes and, rarely, skin problems.
- Thyroid cancer: Cancerous thyroid nodules are typically very treatable and cureable.
If you have symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, or feel a lump or swelling in your thyroid, it is best to see a primary care provider who will perform a basic examination and may check your thyroid function using a blood test. A primary care physician or endocrinologist can treat a thyroid hormone imbalance. For surgery to treat thyroid cancer, you would see an otolaryngologist or endocrine surgeon.
How to Do a Thyroid Self-Examination
If you have risk factors for thyroid diseases (such as a family history), it is a good idea to feel your thyroid gland from time to time. Your thyroid gland is butterfly-shaped and is located in the center of your neck, below your Adams apple and above the notch of your breastbone.
Below are easy steps for examining your thyroid:
- Face a mirror
- Take a sip of water
- Tilt your head back, while still being able to see the mirror
- When you swallow the water, look for any lumps or areas that are not the same on both sides of the thyroid
Thyroid nodules are usually round in shape and move with the gland when you swallow. You may feel the nodule rolling underneath your fingertips or see it move when you swallow. A goiter (swelling) can be found on one side of the thyroid or on both sides.
If you find any lumps or swelling in this area, talk to your doctor. As noted earlier, lumps or nodules on the thyroid gland do not necessarily mean that you have a thyroid hormone disorder or cancer. Thyroid nodules are very common and often do not cause any other issues.
American Thyroid Association. Graves’ Disease. http://www.thyroid.org/wp-content/uploads/patients/brochures/Graves_brochure.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2015.
Hormone Health Network. Thyroid Disorders. http://www.hormone.org/diseases-and-conditions/thyroid. Accessed January 23, 2015.
Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Thyroid Disease Fact Sheet. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/thyroid-disease.html#h. Accessed January 23, 2015.