Tired, achy, losing hair, and gaining weight? Ask your doctor to check your thyroid.

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in the fall, which answered several medical issues I’m experiencing. But getting it on track hasn’t been easy, which is not unusual from what I understand.

I had been improving until my endocrinologist took me off of it completely, rather than altering the prescription, because she said my TSH levels were too low. Between that decision, stress, and other health conditions, I crashed. For months I’ve had debilitating fatigue, nausea, and muscle pain and cramps – Charlie horses in my legs, feet, hands, and even eye lids – not a twitch but the actual tightening and pain of a Charlie horse. The muscles in my jaw hurt so much it was difficult to eat.

All of these symptoms can be controlled with medication. The trick is in figuring out the correct dosage and waiting it out until the meds eventually kick in.

I had no idea how important the thyroid is to our health prior to my own experience. It’s funny how things aren’t all that important until they happen to us. My apologies to those I hadn’t sympathized with in the past.

Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid does not produce enough of a particular set of hormones. The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland in the lower part of the neck below the Adam’s apple. It uses iodine to produce thyroid hormones and works in conjunction with the pituitary gland and hypothalamus. The process works like this: the hypothalamus releases a hormone called thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH) which sends a signal to the pituitary to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), and then TSH sends a signal to the thyroid to release thyroid hormones.

In hypothyroidism, such as what I have, the thyroid does not perform properly so the pituitary gland increases the release of TSH in an attempt to stimulate more thyroid hormone production. That elevated TSH level shown on blood tests indicates the malfunction to physicians.

There is a great deal of variances between physicians, even endocrinologists, on how aggressive they are in balancing the hormone levels and what they think the ideal level of TSH should be. Many believe today that symptoms are the key in treatment. If a patient is unable to function normally, but has only a little indication of malfunction shown on blood tests, some treatment is still beneficial.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism can be anything from subtle to life altering. They include: fatigue; increased sensitivity to cold; constipation; dry skin; weight gain; puffy face; hoarseness; muscle weakness, aches, tenderness, and stiffness;  elevated blood cholesterol; joint stiffness and swelling; heavy or irregular menstrual periods; thinning hair; slowed heart rate; depression; and impaired memory.

Untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to an enlarged heart and increase chances of a heart attack or stroke or an accumulation of fluid around the lungs. In rare cases it also can result in a myxedema coma and death.

More than 12 million Americans, mostly women, have hypothyroidism. Women over the age of 60 are more at risk. Other risk factors include: a preexisting autoimmune disease, a close relative with an autoimmune disease, previous treatment with radioactive iodine or thyroid medications or radiation to your neck or upper chest, a partial thyroidectomy, or even a pregnancy within the past six months.

For more information on hypothyroidism see the Mayo Clinic website at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/ or the American Thyroid Organization at http://www.thyroid.org/

©2013, Mary K. Doyle

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