Important Answers about Hashimoto’s Disease
- Hashimoto’s Disease Overview
- Symptoms of Hashimoto’s
- Causes of Hashimoto’s disease
- Hypothyroidism Complications
- Diagnosing Hashimoto’s Disease
- Treating Hashimoto’s Disease
Hashimoto’s Disease Overview
Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland in the neck located just below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid is an essential component of the endocrine system and produces hormones associated with body functions including body temperature, weight, mental cycles and heart rate. The disease causes chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis and inflammation that often results in hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland.
In the United States, Hashimoto thyroiditis is a leading cause of hypothyroidism. Inflammation causes damage to the thyroid and reduces its capacity to produce hormones. Approximately 1 to 2 percent of Americans will acquire Hashimoto’s thyroiditis over their lifetime. The disease of mostly affects middle-aged women, but women and men of any age and children can also develop the condition.
Symptoms of Hashimoto’s
The initial signs and symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease are not often detectable at first. Over time, the front of the throat can develop a goiter (swelling) and cause chronic thyroid damage. Eventually, the thyroid will produce lower hormone levels in the blood, leading to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland). The most common symptoms and signs of hypothyroidism include:
- Sluggishness and fatigue
- Puffy face
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Muscle weakness
- Unexplained weight gain
- Enlarged tongue
- Menorrhagia – prolonged or excessive menstrual bleeding
- Memory lapse
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Stiff, tender and aching muscles
- Dry, pale skin
It is advisable to see a doctor at the first indicator of any of the common signs and symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease. This would include feeling tired for no apparent reason, ongoing constipation, puffy, pale face or dry skin. High blood cholesterol can also be a cause of hypothyroidism. It is crucial to see the physician on a routine basis if the patient has had:
- Thyroid surgery
- Radiation therapy to the upper chest, neck or head
- Radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medication treatment
Anyone on hormone therapy for hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto’s disease should never miss a follow-up visit to the doctor to ensure they are receiving the correct dosage of prescription medication. This is because thyroid function often changes and requires an adjustment in the dosage to ensure proper functioning.
Causes of Hashimoto’s disease
Doctors, scientists, and researchers have yet to determine the exact cause of why the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. However, some studies indicate that a bacteria or virus may be triggering the response. Others believe the condition is caused by genetics. It might be a combination of risk factors involving age, gender, and heredity that increases the likelihood of developing Hashimoto’s. The most common known risk factors that likely contribute to the potential of developing the condition include:
- Gender – Women have a greater potential of developing Hashimoto’s disease than men and children.
- Age – Anyone at any age can develop the condition. However, it tends to occur more commonly at middle age, especially in women of middle-age.
- Heredity – Males and females with a family history of autoimmune diseases and hypothyroidism have a greater potential risk of developing Hashimoto’s disease.
- Other Autoimmune Diseases – Individuals that already have an autoimmune disease, like Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, have an increased potential of developing Hashimoto’s.
- Exposure to Radiation – Individuals exposed to high levels of environmental radiation and radiation treatments are more likely to develop Hashimoto’s disease.
Without proper treatment, a Hashimoto’s disease-related hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) condition can often cause other health issues that include:
- Goiter – Constantly stimulated thyroids typically release higher levels of hormones that could eventually produce a goiter (an enlarged thyroid gland). Usually, the goiter does not cause discomfort. However, it can affect the individual’s appearance and interfere with breathing or swallowing.
- Heart Issues – Hashimoto’s thyroiditis has been linked with an increased potential of developing heart disease. This is primarily because an underactive thyroid gland often leads to high levels of “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and if left untreated, can result in an enlarged heart and, potentially, heart failure.
- Mental Health Problems – One of the earliest indicators of Hashimoto’s disease is depression, which often becomes significantly more severe over time. Men and women suffering from Hashimoto’s also tend to have a diminished libido (low sexual desire) that in time could develop into slowed mental functioning.
- Myxedema – This Hashimoto’s disease-related long-term condition is rare but life-threatening. Many sufferers of Myxedema also experience drowsiness followed by unconsciousness and lethargy.
- Birth Defects – Newborns of childbearing women with untreated Hashimoto’s disease-related hypothyroidism usually have a greater potential risk of birth defects compared to newborns of healthy mothers. Statistics have proven that many of the defects associated with untreated hypothyroidism involve intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some scientists believe there is a correlation between hypothyroid pregnancies and birth defects including cleft palate. Because of that, it is essential that women of childbearing age have their thyroid levels checked on a routine basis.
Diagnosing Hashimoto’s Disease
Doctors obtaining a family medical history and comducting a comprehensive physical exam will often diagnose Hashimoto’s disease-associated thyroid problems if the patient is feeling increasingly sluggish or tired, experiencing constipation, has a hoarse voice and dry skin, or previously had a goiter or thyroid issues.
Diagnosing Hashimoto’s disease often requires an understanding of the symptoms and signs and reviewing comprehensive blood tests that measure thyroid hormone levels and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormones) produced by the body’s pituitary gland in the brain. Many doctors will perform:
- A Hormone Test – Comprehensive blood tests can help the doctors determine the amounts of hormones that the pituitary gland and thyroid are producing. Underactive thyroids tend to produce low levels of thyroid hormone, whereas elevated levels of TSH can reveal the body’s pituitary gland attempting to stimulate the thyroid gland in an effort to produce higher levels of thyroid hormone.
- An Antibody Test – Typically, abnormal antibodies are produced when any autoimmune disorder, including Hashimoto’s disease, is present. Extensive blood tests might verify the presence of antibodies and TPO (thyroid peroxidase) antibodies, a thyroid gland enzyme that has a crucial role in producing thyroid hormones.
Only recently have physicians been able to detect hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) to confirm Hashimoto’s disease. Now they can use the sensitive thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test initially and follow that test with a thyroid hormone test if required. In addition, these tests help to determine the most effective medication dosage as the disease progresses or gets better.
Treating Hashimoto’s Disease
Doctors often prescribe medications to treat Hashimoto’s disease and observe the effectiveness of the drugs by testing the thyroid’s functioning. Common treatments involve:
- Synthetic Hormones – Many doctors will prescribe the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl, and others. These medications are synthetic versions the natural hormones produced by the thyroid gland.
- Dosage Monitoring – Finding the right dose can be crucial to the quality of life the patient experiences. This is because thyroid hormones in excessive amounts can accelerate bone loss, leading to osteoporosis and arrhythmias (heart rhythm disorders).
- Alternative Medicines – The doctor might also treat the condition with an alternative medicine including porcine (pig) extracts that contain both levothyroxine and triiodothyronine.