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What Does the Thyroid Gland do?
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system that affects the metabolism, growth, and metabolism of the body. It is a small butterfly-shaped gland that lies in front of the trachea and is responsible for producing hormones to make many cells in your body function correctly. Its proper or improper function can affect our energy level, ability to sleep, muscle and digestive function, brain function, mood, ability to maintain a healthy heart rate, and optimal bone density.
Normal thyroid gland function is particularly important for women’s health as its function or dysfunction (incorrect function) may cause problems with fertility, and pregnancy.
What Hormones do the Thyroid Gland Produce?
The function of the thyroid can be assessed by measuring the specific hormones secreted by the thyroid gland called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) or by measuring the feedback signal from the pituitary gland (the brain of the thyroid), called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). Iodine is a necessary building block for the thyroid. Another substance produced by the gland called Calcitonin signals the correct amount of calcium in the blood and affects bone metabolism.
Do You Have an Underactive Thyroid Gland?
This condition is known as hypothyroidism where the gland doesn’t make enough hormones. Many people with hypothyroidism may say “I just can’t lose weight even though I’m hardly eating anything” or “I feel cold all the time”, or “my hair is falling out and my skin feels dry all the time”. Unfortunately, making the diagnosis of hypothyroidism is not as easy as just performing blood work because the body does everything it can to keep the hormones at a certain normal range in the bloodstream so that other organs can function properly. Therefore, thyroid function blood tests don’t tell the whole story.
Additionally, many changes in the thyroid function occur at times in our lives where other hormones are also changing such as during pregnancy or menopause. Both women and men experience hormonal changes at about age 50. In women, we refer to this time as perimenopause. In men, we refer to this time as “mano-pause”. Many other hormonal sex hormone changes also occur at this time so the complaints of fatigue or low libido from thyroid dysfunction may be masked by other hormonal changes.
What are the Signs of an Overactive Thyroid Gland?
Some people suffer from an overly active thyroid which produces too much hormone and overly affects the downstream organs. This condition is called hyperthyroidism. People affected by excess thyroid hormone production may present with cardiac palpitations, flushing, memory loss or mood disturbances, unexplained weight loss, difficulty regulating body temperature, changes in vision or muscles of the eyes.
Why Does the Thyroid Gland Enlarge in Size?
Sometimes the thyroid gland enlarges diffusely (all over). We call this condition a goiter. A Thyroid goiter may occur because of iodine deficiency related to inadequate or poor nutrition. This condition is uncommon in developed countries but can still occur in the noncoastal United States. In some regions of the country that have never been under ocean level, the soil lacks iodine. Therefore, the foods grown in these areas lack natural iodine. The thyroid gland needs iodine to function. In this condition, the thyroid gland appears enlarged clinically. When the gland enlarges because of multiple nodules, this condition is called Multinodular Goiter.
Autoimmune processes such as Graves disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis can cause the thyroid gland to become larger at some times and then smaller as injury atrophies the gland over time. If the gland is actively inflamed accompanied by an abrupt change in function, swelling, or redness of the neck, blood tests may show a sudden overproduction of hormones or antibodies to the gland or its receptors. This condition is referred to as toxic thyroiditis. This may be dangerous especially if important functions such as heart rate or temperature are involved.
Sometimes a solitary thyroid nodule develops to affect one area of the thyroid and not the whole gland. This process usually requires an ultrasound of the thyroid gland.
When do I Need a Thyroid Ultrasound?
A thyroid ultrasound is indicated to evaluate any physiologic change your clinician notices such as enlargement, redness of the neck, growth palpated on examination. An ultrasound may also be ordered for symptoms you notice externally like swelling or internally like difficulty swallowing. Ultrasound is not typically indicated with a normal-sized gland in the absence of any nodules or clinical symptoms.
How is a Thyroid Ultrasound Performed?
Ultrasound of the thyroid uses the same technology regardless of whether we are evaluating the thyroid, breast, or uterus. We use a small hand-held transducer (wand) that emits sound waves produced by special crystals sent to and from the transducer to the thyroid gland. Sound waves reflected back to the crystals in the transducer are displayed as radiology images of the gland for a specialized radiologist to interpret. This process is also sometimes referred to as a sonogram of the thyroid. We look at the overall size of the thyroid gland, the texture, nearby neck lymph nodes, and whether there are any nodules. We can also look at the vessels of the thyroid which can give us additional information on the health of the gland. Although most nodules of the thyroid have characteristics that appear benign (noncancerous), some have suspicious characteristics such as an irregular shape or suspicious calcifications that require a thyroid needle biopsy.
Why Choose The Women’s Imaging Center?
At The Women’s Imaging Center, our technologists and physicians specialize in the performance, detection, and diagnosis of all thyroid conditions and nodules. We perform comprehensive imaging for women from head to toe and have decades of specialized training in all organ systems of the body and their interrelationship. Thyroid function may affect the breast in the form of pain. Pregnancy-related issues may be a result of autoimmune thyroid disorders such as Graves Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
Only specialists who work within this comprehensive contained field will appreciate the relationship of one organ system to another. We specialize in all these processes and work closely with other specialists such as endocrinologists or gynecologists in a multi-disciplinary fashion.