The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis affects roughly 5 percent of individuals. Those impacted by the disease have an underactive thyroid because the immune system in effect attacks it, causing damage and altering the organ’s ability to produce adequate thyroid hormones.
If left untreated, the condition can cause a number of health complications, so knowing what to look out for as well as understanding your treatment options should your be diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is important.
What Is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis?
A small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck, the thyroid produces several hormones that support your body’s energy usage. As such, these hormones impact nearly every organ in the body, including the heart.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a chronic disease of the thyroid in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, leading to underproduction of the thyroid hormones. In most cases, the disease presents as a gradual loss of function of the gland in combination with the enlargement of the thyroid, commonly known as a goiter.
If diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, it is also common that you may develop other conditions as well. Imbalanced hormone levels may contribute to an increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. If left untreated, the condition may lead to myxedema coma in rare cases. This is a condition in which the body’s functions have slowed to the point that it is life threatening – an issue that requires immediate medical attention.
Who Is At Risk to Develop Hashimoto’s?
The condition can affect both men and women; however, it is roughly 8 times more prevalent in women. Likewise, individuals of any age can develop Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, but it is most common in women between the ages of 40 and 60. You risk of the disease also increases if you have a family history of the condition. Additionally, you are more likely to develop Hashimoto’s if you have certain autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune diseases that have been linked to Hashimoto’s include:
- Addison’s disease.
- Autoimmune hepatitis.
- Celiac disease.
- Pernicious anemia.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
- Sjogren’s syndrome.
- Type 1 diabetes.
Symptoms of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is typically a slow developing disease. In fact, many individuals may experience no symptoms initially and only slowly progress with noticeable concerns as the condition worsens. One of the first signs of Hashimoto’s for many patients is the enlarged thyroid, or goiter, that causes the front of the throat or neck to look swollen. Although many patients experience a fullness in the throat with this enlargement, there is typically no pain. After several years, the condition can cause enough damage to the thyroid that it then shrinks, causing the thyroid to disappear.
Although most individuals experience few to no symptoms initially, issues may manifest as the condition progresses. Common symptoms of the later stages of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis include:
- Weight gain.
- Temperature sensitivity, particularly to the cold.
- Joint and muscle pain.
- Dry, thinning hair.
- Heavy or irregular menstrual periods.
- Poor memory.
- Reduced heart rate.
When Should You See a Doctor?
Your doctor should check your thyroid at annual appointments; however, if you experience any of the following, you should see your doctor to rule out thyroid concerns:
- Fatigue with no explainable reason.
- Dry skin.
- Pale, puffy skin, particularly in the face.
Likewise, you should get more frequent thyroid evaluations if:
- You have undergone thyroid surgery.
- You have been treated with radioactive iodine or other anti-thyroid medication.
- You have had radiation to your head, neck, or chest.
Causes of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system creates antibodies that attack and damage the thyroid gland. At this point, doctors are unsure what causes this or any other autoimmune disorder. While some scientists believe that a virus or bacterium initiates the response, others believe a genetic flaw is at fault. And still, the research is inconclusive. There are indicators, however, that several factors are likely involved, including age, sex, and heredity.
Complications of the Condition
Whatever the cause, if it’s left untreated, the condition can lead to a number of other health conditions. These comorbid conditions include:
- Heart problems.
- Mental health issues.
- Myxedema, in rare cases.
- Birth defects.
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis Treatment
Treatment of the condition begins with an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will likely test you for an underactive thyroid if you begin feeling tired or sluggish, develop dry skin, experience frequent constipation, have a hoarse voice, or have a history of thyroid issues. Diagnosis of the diseases involves an evaluation of your symptoms as well as an assessment of specific blood tests. These test generally include:
- Hormone test – to determine the amount of thyroid hormones your body is producing.
- Antibody test – to determine if your body is producing any abnormal antibodies that may be attacking your thyroid gland
Once you have been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, treatment can begin. Treatment typically involves the use of medication in combination with careful observation to determine how your body is responding to the treatment. Common medication prescribed to treat Hashimoto’s thyroiditis include:
Synthetic hormone replacements is one of the first treatments typically recommended. This approach generally involves daily use of levothyroxine. This is an oral medication that restores hormone levels in an effort to reverse hypothyroidism symptoms. The treatment is typically lifelong, but the dosage may change frequently.
While most individuals respond well to levothyroxine alone, others don’t feel quite themselves with just this medication. In these cases, a combination of hormones may be used in the form of liotrix or liothyronine, depending on what other hormone replacement is being used. It is especially important to monitor your response to this treatment, however, as it may cause increased hormone levels and result in increased heart rate, anxiety, and insomnia.
Although levothyroxine is the standard form of treatment for Hashimoto’s, there are extracts available that are derived from the thyroid glands of swine. These products contain a combination of levothyroxine and triiodothyronine. Many doctors still have reservations about this treatment option, though, as the balance of hormones in animals is not the same as humans and the precise amount of hormones in each batch of the treatment varies.
Although Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can cause significant health concerns, it is typically very treatable. Most individuals respond well to treatment with hormone replacement therapy and experience a complete reversal of symptoms, including balanced hormones, increased energy, and weight regulation. It is very important to work closely with your doctor to achieve an accurate diagnosis and to regularly monitor your hormone levels during treatment, however, as not doing so may lead to risky complications.