Complications of Untreated Hypothyroidism
Like many women her age, Susan Stoev, 49, of Rochester, N.Y., felt tired and sluggish, and struggled with occasional aches and pains. A marketing executive and busy mother of two, she chalked up her ailments to middle age. But during a routine physical, Stoev mentioned her recent and inexplicable weight gain to her doctor. Blood tests revealed a common problem: She has hypothyroidism, also called an underactive thyroid.
Stoev is one of more than 9.5 million Americans with hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland, found at the base of the front of your neck, doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones. “Thyroid hormones control metabolism — the way the body uses and stores energy — and they affect many organ systems within the body,” says Diana Kao, MD, MS, a women’s health and chronic disease management expert at the University of Washington Neighborhood Factoria Clinic in Bellevue, Wash. Common causes of hypothyroidism include autoimmune disease, removal of the thyroid, radiation treatment, and treatment for an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). Being female and over 50 years old are the two biggest risk factors.
Hypothyroidism Symptoms Over Time
An underactive thyroid slows down body processes. Early on, you may not know there’s anything wrong. But over time, in addition to weight gain and fatigue, other common symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:
- Poor concentration
- Hoarse voice
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin and hair
- Muscle or joint pain
- Menstrual problems
- Elevated cholesterol levels
Stoev experienced many of these symptoms, but "all of those things could be attributed to something else, so it wasn’t until I was tested and diagnosed that I started putting all the pieces together," she says. "Hypothyroidism then made sense.”
The Complications of Untreated Hypothyroidism
There’s no cure for hypothyroidism, but in most cases it can be controlled successfully with treatment — and doing so is important. Untreated hypothyroidism can contribute to mental decline, heart disease, decreased lung function, and abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland (also known as goiter). Although rare, severe untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a life-threatening condition called myxedema, a type of coma that occurs when the body’s level of thyroid hormones becomes extremely low. Infection or another illness, certain medications, or exposure to extreme cold can trigger myxedema in someone with an underactive thyroid. Approximately 50 percent of people who develop myxedema die from the condition if it’s diagnosed too late.
Hypothyroidism Treatment: Simple, Effective, and Safe
Treatment for hypothyroidism, also called thyroid hormone replacement therapy, is fairly simple and very effective, so ignoring hypothyroidism symptoms isn’t worth the complication risks. Your doctor will prescribe an initial dose of synthetic thyroid hormone medication and re-test the level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood in approximately six to eight weeks, Dr. Kao explains. “Depending on the results, the dose of thyroid hormone can be adjusted," she says. "It’s important to take the medication exactly as prescribed so blood tests results will be most accurate for any dosage adjustment needed.”
It’s also important to take each dose of thyroid hormone medication on an empty stomach, because food can affect how your body absorbs the drug. Talk to your doctor about other medications you’re taking and discuss the best time of day to take your thyroid hormone medication. Doing so at the same time every day works best to keep your thyroid hormone level consistent.
Stoev says she started to feel better after about two months of hypothyroidism treatment, and that now she’s less tired and has more energy — and her weight has become more predictable again, too. Getting diagnosed and starting treatment are key elements of getting this condition under control. Treatment for underactive thyroid is effective and relatively simple, and a number of health problems and potentially serious complications can be avoided.
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