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The thyroid gland is the biggest gland in the neck. It is situated in the anterior (front) neck below the skin and muscle layers. The thyroid gland takes the shape of a butterfly with the two wings being represented by the left and right thyroid lobes which wrap around the trachea. The sole function of the thyroid is to make thyroid hormone which regulates the body's metabolism. This hormone has an effect on nearly all tissues of the body.


When Should You Suspect Your Thyroid?


Your thyroid gland tells every cell in your body the rate at which it should function. Having too little hormone, called hypothyroidism, puts you into a dragging slowdown. This is a problem for more than 10 million Americans-of whom 8 million don't know it. Having too much hormone, called hyperthyroidism, races your engine, so you feel all revved up-as if you were burning out. This problem affects some 4.5 million Americans, but at least 600,000 of them have yet to be diagnosed.  Feeling tired and chilly, having constipation or losing your hair, can mean your thyroid is under active-but these could also come from overwork, or aging, or a dozen other causes. Feeling totally tense and overworked could mean an overactive thyroid-or just plain stress.


Common problems with an under active thyroid and too little thyroid hormone:


  • feeling tired and listless
  • feeling chilly, especially when other people are comfortable
  • dry skin
  • hair loss
  • constipation
  • slow-growing and brittle fingernails
  • slow heart rate
  • leg cramps
  • sore muscles
  • depression
  • for women, heavier periods
  • for men, loss of interest in sex, erectile dysfunction
  • weight gain due to fluid retention, but usually no more than 3-4 pounds

Common problems with an overactive thyroid and too much thyroid hormone:


  • feeling too hot when others are comfortable
  • shakes and tremors of your hands
  • feeling nervous and irritable
  • sweating more than you used to
  • fingernails growing faster
  • muscle weakness, especially thighs and upper arms
  • faster heart rate, sometimes irregular rhythms and an erratic pulse
  • more frequent and looser bowel movements
  • for women, lighter periods, as well as difficulties in becoming pregnant or in carrying the child to term
  • for men, loss of interest in sex, erectile dysfunction
  • eyes that appear larger than normal


Other thyroid problems


Other thyroid problems show up when the thyroid gland (at the lower front of your throat) swells or gets sore.


These may be a signals for other thyroid diseases:


  • an enlarging thyroid, called a goiter, is usually a sign that the gland is overworking but could be a failing thyroid trying to do better
  • lumps or nodules in the gland, found by you or your doctor, may contain cancer or be overproducing thyroid hormone
  • thyroiditis, soreness due to inflammation of all or part of the gland can change hormone levels causing either hyper- or hypothyroidism


Your risks are higher if...


  • others in your family have thyroid or other immune-system problems (such as insulin-dependent diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, pernicious anemia).
  • you are pregnant or a new mother.
  • you are a woman over 50 or a man over 60.



If you think you have a thyroid problem, make an appointment to see your doctor who knows you and should be in the best position to decide if thyroid tests should be performed by a thyroid specialist.


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