Hypothyroidism is one of the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed conditions in the U.S. It is estimated that approximately 10 million Americans have it — and I'm one of them.
Hypothyroidism is a disorder that occurs when the thyroid — a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, just above the collarbone — doesn't make enough thyroid hormone, or thyroxine, to meet the body's needs. Thyroxine regulates metabolism — the way the body uses energy — and affects nearly every organ.
Without enough thyroxine, many of the body's functions, whether related to our muscles, liver, brain and other organs, may slow down. Dr. Eva Leonard, a primary care doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says that the long-term effects of an unchecked and untreated low thyroid state can be serious. "These include continued decreased energy, decreased memory, intractable constipation, decreased hearing, psychomotor slowing, weight gain, fluid retention, heart failure, coma and eventual death," she says.
There are several causes of hypothyroidism, but the most common is called autoimmune thyroiditis (also called Hashimoto's thyroiditis or Hashimoto's disease), a form of chronic inflammation of the thyroid caused by the person's own immune system.
I was living in Austin, Texas, at the time I was diagnosed. I knew something was "off" when I was struggling with constant fatigue, depression, sensitivity to cold temperature — some of the classic symptoms of the condition. Other symptoms associated with the disorder include weight gain; fluid retention; constipation; muscle or joint pain; dry, itchy skin; and slow pulse. It wasn't until I did some research and asked around that a friend suggested I get a blood test for hypothyroidism.
Sure enough, the TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test indicated that I was well out of the range for normal thyroid function. I immediately went on a daily regimen of taking levothyroxine, a synthetic hormone that is chemically identical to the body's natural hormone, which is the easiest and most effective treatment.
Because each person's thyroid hormone needs are very precise, finding the proper dose of levothyroxine can take some time; adjustments in medication dosage are typical until your TSH level is within the normal range.
Within several weeks of beginning treatment, I noticed a dramatic difference in my energy level, although my doctor had to adjust my dose and retest my blood a few times to get it right. Eventually, my energy was restored and within a year, I went on to tackle a strenuous, 140-mile cycling ride through the hill country of central Texas.
Because most cases of hypothyroidism in adults are permanent and often progressive, many patients need to take thyroid medication throughout their lives. I'm more than 15 years into my treatment and I feel great.
"Patients with hypothyroidism should continue with daily medication and periodic visits with the physician for blood level checks," says Dr. Leonard. "Once the proper dose is reached, lab checks should be done at least yearly, but more often whenever symptoms dictate re-evaluation."