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Dr. Samar Malaeb: What you need to know about hypothyroidism

Q: How would I know if I have underactive thyroid?

A. One of the primary symptoms is unexplained fatigue and sluggishness because the thyroid is your master gland for metabolism and energy.

The vast majority of Americans diagnosed with thyroid-related conditions are hypothyroid (underactive), meaning their thyroid gland isn’t producing appropriate levels of certain important hormones.

Many other symptoms are also associated with hypothyroidism; many of these symptoms can be indicative of other health issues as well.

The only way to determine whether or not you have an underactive thyroid is to make an appointment with your primary care provider. Diagnosis of hypothyroidism is based on your symptoms and the results of blood tests.

What are other symptoms?

Unexplained weight gain, increased sensitivity to cold, chronic constipation, dry skin, puffiness (especially under the eyes), hoarseness, muscle and joint aches, overall body stiffness, heavy menstrual periods, brittle fingernails, hair loss, forgetfulness and depression are common symptoms. Children and teens may also experience poor growth, delayed puberty and delayed development of permanent teeth. Not all people with hypothyroidism experience all the symptoms. Symptoms vary widely and problems related to this condition develop slowly so many people simply attribute symptoms to the aging process. As the metabolism continues getting slower, signs become more obvious.

Who is at risk of developing hypothyroidism?

Women are at higher risk, particularly over age 50. People who have an autoimmune disease or a close relative who is hypothyroid or has an autoimmune disease are also at higher risk. Anyone who has received radiation to the neck or upper chest, had thyroid surgery, or been treated with radioactive iodine is also higher risk.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor if you’re feeling tired for no reason, continue to gain weight despite following sound nutritional plans, or have any of these other symptoms on an ongoing basis.

How is underactive thyroid treated?

Thyroid function tests can diagnose hypothyroidism. If you are hypothyroid, your doctor will prescribe a synthetic thyroid hormone, an oral medication you will take regularly all your life. Once the proper dosage is established, you will see dramatic improvement in your symptoms. Because the dosage you need may change, your doctor is likely to check your TSH level every year.

What if I don’t seek treatment?

Over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause health problems such as obesity, acute joint pain, infertility, birth defects, mental health problems, elevated cholesterol levels and heart problems.

Your Health is a new, bi-monthly column from various medical staff at Sanford Bemidji.

Dr. Samar Malaeb is an endocrinologist at Sanford Bemidji Clinic. Malaeb received her medical education at the American University of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon. She completed an internal medicine internship at the American University of Beirut and an internal medicine residency at Tufts University in Boston. Most recently, Malaeb completed a fellowship from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism. She is is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and by the ABIM in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism. She is recognized by the International Society for Clinical Densitometry as a certified clinical densitometrist.