It's the job of the thyroid gland, the small butterfly-shaped gland in front of the neck just below the Adam's apple, to take iodine from food and convert it into thyroid hormones, which regulates the metabolism of every cell in the body.

When the thyroid gland fails to do its job, unable to produce sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone to keep the body up and running, it's considered underactive. This condition is called hypothyroidism.

In the United States, at least 4.6 percent of the population 12 years old and above have hypothyroidism. Middle-aged and older women are more predisposed to this condition than men.

Causes Of Hypothyroidism

There could be many factors that contribute to an underactive thyroid. But some of the most documented causes of hypothyroidism are autoimmune diseases (such as Hashimoto's disease), thyroiditis (an inflammation of the thyroid gland, which is frequently caused by an autoimmune attack or by a viral infection), and congenital hypothyroidism.

Long-term exposure to medical treatment procedures (such as radiation) and taking prescription drugs (such as amiodarone, lithium, interferon alpha, interleukin-2, or thalidomide) may also impair normal thyroid function.

Symptoms Of Hypothyroidism

The symptoms of hypothyroidism are non-specific and appear differently from person to person, depending on the severity of the thyroid hormone deficiency. Early symptoms, such as fatigue, dry skin, weight, gain, or increased sensitivity to cold, are often shrugged off and dismissed as mere signs of aging.

But as the metabolism becomes more and more out of whack, the person will start to notice serious health changes that may be a cause for concern. These include elevated blood cholesterol levels; stiffness, pain, or swelling in the joints; abnormally heavy and irregular menstrual cycles; decreased sexual appetite; memory loss; and depression.

How To Know If You Have An Underactive Thyroid

Because there is no symptom that is unique to this condition, diagnosis of hypothyroidism will include a thorough check on a person's medical and family history, a physical examination, and a series of blood tests.

The thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test will measure how much thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) the thyroid gland is being required to make. An unusually high TSH is a telltale sign of hypothyroidism. This means the thyroid gland is being forced to make more T4, because there is an inadequate supply of the hormone in the blood.

Can Hypothyroidism Be Treated?

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to treat hypothyroidism. However, it can be easily managed by taking T4 replacement therapies, which will bring your T4 hormone levels back to a healthy range.

Doctors usually prescribe the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine to control or completely reverse the symptoms of hypothyroidism. While on these oral medication, the patient will be monitored closely and TSH levels will be checked regularly to prevent excessive production of the thyroid hormone, which is also not a good thing. Too much TSH comes with uncomfortable side effects, such as insomnia, nervousness, and palpitations.

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