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Wed, Aug. 21

Hypothyroidism: Common, but easily treated condition

Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone production, is a common condition affecting millions of Americans. In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 10 million Americans, or about 5 percent of people aged 12 and older suffer with low thyroid function.

Thyroid hormone is produced in a butterfly-shaped gland located in the lower front of the neck. This hormone regulates most tissues and organs in the body and is necessary for good health. Unfortunately, symptoms of low thyroid function vary, and can sometimes be hard to detect. Karen Box, MD, an Endocrinologist with YRMC PhysicianCare in Prescott, states "Symptoms related to diminished thyroid hormone production depend on how low thyroid hormone levels are, and how rapidly they drop. Often there are no symptoms, but, more commonly, symptoms of depression, weight gain, foggy thinking, fatigue, dry skin and constipation occur. However, these are not specific to thyroid problems alone and can occur in otherwise healthy people. Therefore, patients with symptoms should talk to their healthcare provider to see if their condition might be related to a thyroid problem." According to the National Institutes of Health, people with hypothyroidism may also exhibit even less obvious symptoms, including joint pain, irregular menstruation and even elevated blood levels of cholesterol.

Hypothyroidism is usually diagnosed with a simple blood test.

A common cause of hypothyroidism is autoimmune thyroid disease, or Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which triggers the body to destroy the cells that produce thyroid hormones. Autoimmune thyroid disease is diagnosed by testing the blood for thyroid antibodies, and is also common in people with other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Other causes of hypothyroidism include some medications, such as lithium and amiodarone; oral contrast dyes used for imaging studies; viral infections; radiation to the neck; iodine deficiency or overload; and removal of any part of the thyroid gland.

Hypothyroidism is easily treated with levothyroxine, a medication that replaces T4 in the blood.

Dr. Box stresses the importance of taking thyroid hormone replacement as directed, advising her patients to, "Take thyroid hormone first thing in the morning with water only - just enough to get the pill comfortably into the stomach ­- 30 to 60 minutes prior to ingesting any coffee, juice, food, or additional supplements and medications. It's a good idea to place thyroid medication at a convenient location, making it easy to take upon rising.

Physicians typically test TSH levels 5-6 weeks after initiating treatment and aim for TSH levels in the 1-3 range.

Dr. Box concludes, "Patients treated with thyroid hormone to achieve appropriate TSH values can live healthy lives."

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