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Could You Have a Thyroid Problem?

The Dangers of "Explaining Away Your Symptoms."

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Updated December 16, 2003

You may be wondering if you have a thyroid problem. But, if you're like many of the people who write to me every day, you may also be wondering if you're looking too much into symptoms you're experiencing, and perhaps struggling too hard to make a diagnosis fit. Or maybe you worry that trying to figure out if you have a thyroid problem will make you look like a hypochondriac to your doctor, friends and family.

Most of the symptoms of thyroid conditions are similar to the symptoms of other conditions and health issues. These symptoms don't automatically suggest "thyroid disease" to practitioners, much less patients. Therefore, it's dangerously easy -- and far too common -- for you or your doctor to explain away thyroid symptoms.

After all, you work long hours, take care of your family, juggle many responsibilities, and are getting older...of course you're tired! You don't get enough exercise, and take one too many trip through the fast food drive-through window each week? It's no surprise you're gaining a few pounds! Are you frazzled by a stressful job or responsibilities? It's no wonder you're experiencing anxiety, panic attacks or depression -- they're common in today's hectic and overburdened society. Do you find it hard to concentrate and remember things, notice you're not sleeping so easily, suffering a diminishing sex drive, and your hair is getting thinner? So, what else is new when you're over 60?

It's very easy to explain away symptoms. For example, a period when hypothyroidism is more common is after having a baby. And what woman who has just had a baby isn't complaining about difficulty losing weight, fatigue, hair loss, and general malaise? Coincidentally, those happen to be the same exact symptoms you might encounter with post-partum hypothyroidism.

Unfortunately, while your symptoms may not be anything more than needing more exercise, or more sleep, or may be normal for a woman for post-partum or menopause, they may point to a diagnosable and treatable condition like thyroid disease.

Compounding the tendency to explain away thyroid symptoms is the fact that, like other autoimmune diseases, the thyroid conditions Hashimoto's Thyroiditis and Graves' Disease also frequently appear during and after periods of great stress -- mental and/or physical. Whether it's coping with another illness, death of a loved one, changes of job or house, going through a divorce, experiencing a car accident -- autoimmune thyroid problems more commonly manifest themselves after these types of crises and stressors. But that's also the same time that you -- and your doctor -- might expect you to suffer symptoms such as fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, and weight changes.

Should You Be Tested for Thyroid Disease?

Some thyroid experts are suggesting that everyone should have thyroid testing at 35 years of age, and every several years thereafter. And researchers recently found that thyroid disease is far more prevalent than previously thought. In fact, more than 13 million Americans may have thyroid disease, but be unaware of it, undiagnosed and untreated.

Despite the vast numbers of undiagnosed people, recommendations for widespread thyroid testing have not been widely adopted or followed. The majority of adults, therefore, have never had a thyroid test, and probably won't receive one unless they request it, or their doctor specifically suspects a thyroid problem.

If you suspect you have a thyroid problem, follow these steps:

Familiarize Yourself With Thyroid Disease -- An excellent starting place is a multi-part article, called Thyroid Disease 101: Basic Information on Hypothyroidism, Hyperthyroidism, Nodules, Goiter, and Thyroid Cancer. This article will help you identify the key types of thyroid conditions and their common features.

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