Living with Thyroid Disease

The thyroid is an endocrine gland that creates essential hormones for bodily functions. When these hormones are out of balance resulting symptoms can be difficult to cope with both physically, emotionally and mentally. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with thyroid disease.

What the Thyroid Does

The thyroid gland is often described as being butterfly shaped. The thyroid is about two inches in size and is located in the base of the neck (below the Adam's apple) wrapped around the trachea (windpipe).

The main function of the thyroid is the creation of a hormone called T4. This hormone is later converted to T3 by the liver and has a major effect on various bodily functions including the rate at which your cells metabolize energy, your heart rate, rate of breathing, body weight, body temperature, digestion and more.

In order to function properly, the thyroid requires iodine; iodine deficiency can cause thyroid problems such as goiters. In the United States, table salt is commonly fortified with iodine to prevent thyroid issues in the population.

The thyroid works in conjunction with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus produces a hormone called TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) which (through the pituitary) tells the thyroid gland to produce more or less T3 and T4. Although simplified, the process works something like this: low levels of T3 and T4 in the blood triggers the pituitary gland to release more TSH which then tells the thyroid gland to produce more T3 and T4.

Coping with Hypothyroid Disease

Hypothyroid disease is any disease process that causes your body to produce too little T3 and T4. Common conditions that can result in hypothyroid disease include Hashimoto's disease (an autoimmune disorder), the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid, or if you have had radiation treatment that has affected your thyroid.

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid may include feeling tired or sluggish, weight gain despite not eating much, hair loss, joint and muscle pain, constipation, dry skin, depression, infertility, changes in your menstrual cycle, and a slowed heart rate.

The treatment for hypothyroid disease is medication. Levothyroxine is a synthetic thyroid hormone that can be taken orally. Periodic blood testing is necessary to ensure you are on the right dose of this medication.

Unfortunately for some individuals finding the right dose can be tricky. An endocrinologist is a doctor who specializes in treating thyroid problems (as well as other endocrine disorders). Finding a good doctor is the first step on your journey to wellness.

It can take time and patience until you start feeling better. In the meantime, the following tips may help you to cope with the symptoms of hypothyroidism.

Thyroid Disease Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Talk to Someone About Your Depression

The emotional toll of hypothyroidism can be extremely debilitating. Whether you decide to use a professional therapist, spiritual leader, or a good friend it is important to reach out to other people when you are feeling depressed. While you may also be feeling tired and not like doing much it's a good idea to make time to go out with friends and relax.

Exercise

Exercise may be beneficial in minimizing several symptoms of hypothyroidism including weight gain, sleep problems, and depression.

Realize That Frustrating Weight Gain Is Probably Temporary

Hypothyroidism decreases your metabolism and causes you to gain weight. The good news is that once your blood levels of T3 and T4 are back to a balanced level this frustrating weight gain should subside. In the meantime keep trying to maintain a healthy diet to avoid other nutrient deficiencies which could further interfere with your health.

Maintain a Good Sleep Regime

Fatigue is a common symptom of hypothyroidism but maintaining good sleep habits can help minimize tiredness. Try to go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at about the same time each morning. Limit electronics before bedtime and sleep in a dark room. You should also resist the urge to tank up on extra caffeine as this can interfere with your quality of sleep.

Take Steps to Ease Constipation

Constipation can be a big issue for people with hypothyroidism. Some things that may help include magnesium supplements, over the counter stool softeners, fiber supplements, eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and drinking a lot of water.

Manage Your Expectations

Your symptoms may make it difficult to accomplish as much as you did before you had thyroid problems. Realize that this is okay and until your hormones are better balanced it might be okay to say no and resist the urge to take on extra tasks or stressors.

Coping with Hyperthyroid Disease

Hyperthyroid disease occurs when too much thyroid hormone is made. Conditions that cause this include Graves disease, Plummer's disease, and toxic adenoma.

Symptoms of a hyperactive thyroid may include increased heart rate, nervousness, weight loss, heat intolerance, anxiety, excessive sweating, heart palpitations, mood swings, fatigue or muscle weakness, diarrhea, and hand tremors.

Hyperthyroidism is usually treated with radioactive iodine to kill thyroid cells or the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid.

When treating hyperthyroidism, it may take some time to get your hormone levels properly balanced.

The ultimate solution is to find a good doctor and get adequate treatment for hyperthyroidism. In the meantime, there are ways of coping with the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

If you are losing weight you may need to increase your caloric intake until you get your thyroid hormones balanced. However, you should still make a point of making healthy choices rather than loading up on high-fat, nutrient-poor foods. Make sure to continue eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Manage Nervousness and Anxiety

If you are suffering from nervousness and anxiety it is a good idea to stay away from caffeine which can make these symptoms worse. In fact, caffeine can exacerbate many of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Other tactics that can help with anxiety include deep breathing exercises, and exercise in general but particularly activities such as yoga, and meditation.

Excessive Sweating

Stay away from caffeine and other stimulants. It may be more helpful to shower at night and use deodorant before bed than to do it in the morning. Prescription deodorants are available; if you feel you need them discuss with your doctor.

Maintain a Healthy Sleep Regime

The sleep issues associated with hyperthyroidism may differ from that of hypothyroidism but many of the same habits can still be helpful. People with hyperthyroidism may suffer from insomnia. You should still try to go to sleep at the same time each night (as much as possible) and wake up at the same time each morning. Resist the urge to sleep in as this may make insomnia worse. Limit electronic use before bedtime and blue light.

If you are having trouble sleeping don't stay in bed, get up and do something then come back to bed and try again. You should also know that while for some people hyperthyroidism results in excess energy the opposite can also be true. Some people suffer from fatigue. Resist the urge to tank up on caffeine.

Coping with Thyroid Surgery

Removing all or part of the thyroid gland is a treatment used for several types of thyroid disease including hyperthyroidism, goiter, nodules and thyroid cancer. If thyroid surgery has been recommended as a treatment for your thyroid condition the first step is finding a great surgeon. You will want to look for a surgeon who has ample experience doing thyroid surgery and who will patiently answer any questions you have throughout the process.

Thyroid surgery is fairly common in the United States and has a complication rate of less than 2%. However, you should be aware that potential complications of thyroid surgery include infection, excessive bleeding, reactions to general anesthesia, nerve injury that may result in permanent hoarseness or respiratory problems, or damage to the parathyroid glands which may result in problems with your calcium regulation.

Following thyroid surgery, you will probably need your blood levels of thyroid hormone tested periodically and may need to take levothyroxine on a temporary or permanent basis depending on your exact situation and how much of your thyroid was removed.

The surgery itself takes about two and a half hours. When you wake up you can expect to have a sore throat and your voice may be hoarse. If you experience pain and nausea let your nurse know as there are medications that can help to manage these symptoms. Many people spend a night in the hospital after thyroid surgery. Some people wake up with a drain coming from their incision. It will be removed before you leave the hospital.

You may need to have your calcium checked, especially if any of your parathyroid glands were removed during the surgery.

The following tips may help you in your path to recovery following thyroid surgery.

Manage Your Expectations

One of the first questions people ask when finding out they need thyroid surgery is, how long it will take for me to recover? You want to know when you can return to work or school and get back to normal activities.

Most people say that it took them longer to fully recover from thyroid surgery than they expected.

Unfortunately, there's no right answer as the recovery process is different for everyone. While you should discuss this with your doctor before surgery keep in mind that any time frame you are given is an estimate only and your individual journey will be unique.

Prepare Ahead

Expect to have to take it easy for at least a month following thyroid surgery. Rally your support system around you and don't over-schedule yourself or plan any strenuous activities during this time. Freezing meals ahead of time or delegating chores are examples of ways to plan ahead but your individual needs during this time period will, of course, be specific to your situation. Avoid planning vacations or big trips for a while following your surgery.

Incisions Take Time to Heal

Many patients express dismay at the appearance of their incision in the days and weeks following thyroid surgery. Being on the front of the neck it is in a conspicuous area and people may ask you about your scar.

It is important to remember that whatever your incision looks like in the days and weeks following your surgery it is not permanent. As the incision heals it will be less noticeable and many people report that their incision is hardly noticeable at all about a year after the procedure.

Coping with Radioactive Iodine Treatment

Radioactive iodine (I-131) is used to treat both hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer. Your thyroid normally absorbs iodine so when it absorbs this radioactive type of iodine the thyroid cells are destroyed.

Your thyroid absorbs iodine best when there are high levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood. This is accomplished either through injections of a medication called Thyrogen or through withholding levothyroxine. You may also have to follow a low iodine diet for a while before your treatment.

When you undergo treatment with I-131 your body will give off a certain amount of radiation for a while. This radiation can pose a health risk to others, especially small children. Your doctor will give you specific instructions about limiting the amount of time you spend around other people. It is very important that you follow these instructions carefully.

Whether or not you experience side effects of the radiation is individual and also related to the dose you are given. Some potential side effects include nausea, vomiting, neck swelling, a sore neck, dry mouth and changes in the way you taste food.

The following tips will help you cope during radioactive iodine treatment:

  • Prevent salivary gland problems: Suck on hard candies or chew gum. This may also help with a metallic or strange taste in your mouth. Stock up on a variety of flavors since your sense of taste may be altered.
  • For dry eyes: It may be a good idea to wear contact lenses instead of glasses. Over-the-counter eye drops may also be beneficial.
  • For pain: If your neck feels sore or tender you may wish to use ice, heat, or over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • For nausea: Talk to your doctor before your treatment about potential nausea treatments such as ondansetron.
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