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Hypothyroidism; Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Updated on February 1, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Is low thyroid function the reason for your symptoms?

An increasingly larger segment of the American population is getting fat. Some of it may have to do with lifestyle:

  • Poor food choices
  • Lack of exercise
  • Overeating

Not all obesity is due to these things however. In some cases hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function, is the culprit. It is one of the most commonly misdiagnosed illnesses in adults. While thyroid levels can be measured in a simple blood test not all people with low thyroid will show low levels. If the doctor is relying purely on the lab results rather than on how the patient feels he could be misdiagnosing this problem.

So, how do you know if your symptoms are due to an underactive thyroid gland?

Thyroid, via:wikimedia
Thyroid, via:wikimedia

Symptoms of Low Thyroid

One of the most bothersome symptoms of low thyroid for most people is the inability to lose weight. That frustration is often compounded by doctors and friends who attribute it to lack of exercise or over eating. In some cases the patient is eating less than 1200 calories a day and working out in the gym with weights and aerobics twelve hours a week and not seeing a change. (I know this to be true because I am that person. I finally went on 500 calories a day for three weeks to “prove” to my doctor I wasn’t overeating.) Generally a low carbohydrate diet that is also low in fat will help the patient lose some weight, slowly, but it will reappear as soon as the diet changes.

Other symptoms of low thyroid function are:

  • Hair breakage
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle fingernails
  • Heavy periods
  • Aches and pain in the joints and muscles
  • Lack of energy
  • Fatigue
  • Cold when others are comfortable
  • Puffiness
  • Hoarseness
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Forgetfulness
  • Breathlessness

These symptoms can vary in intensity from person to person. It is not commonly known that people can become anemic as a result of low thyroid function. If you have anemia that seemingly has no medical foundation this may be the case.

Diagnosis of Low Thyroid

You doctor will use several methods of diagnosing your low thyroid function.

He will discuss your symptoms with you and take note of your physical appearance. Some of the physical signs of low thyroid function are:

  • Droopy eyelids
  • Loss of the outer eyebrows
  • Puffiness
  • Pallor

Next, generally there will be a blood test. The blood test is not totally conclusive so do not accept your doctor saying that there is nothing wrong based on normal thyroid levels. Blood tests for T-3 and T-4 levels can show high or low thyroid activity but many times they do not.

A sonogram of the thyroid gland may be ordered to check for nodules, tumors, and cysts.

Depending on the results of the tests above the doctor may order a radioactive iodine uptake imaging test. In this procedure you will be asked to take capsules of iodine with a low level of radioactivity. You will return to the lab in about twenty four hours for a scan to see how much radioactivity is in your thyroid.

The next possible test would be a Fine Needle Aspiration biopsy of the tissue in the thyroid. A local anesthetic is given and a small needle is inserted into the thyroid. Tissue is removed and sent to a lab for evaluation.
Cancer of the thyroid is found in only about five percent of nodules.

Treatment of Hypothyroidism

The treatment you receive will depend on the underlying cause of the hypothyroidism. The primary issue will be resolved and then you will be given a prescription for a thyroid supplements, usually a synthetic thyroid. Your levels will be tested often until they reach the optimum level. This can take up to six weeks so be patient and work with your doctor. You will need to take these medications for the rest of your life.

There are natural and herbal medications that some people have had success with. These may be helpful in very early stages of hypothyroidism depending on the underlying cause, but not so much once it is causing symptoms.

Discuss all changes in your health with your doctor and always be proactive. Do your own research and read up on your symptoms so that you can make informed, wise choices.


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    • profile image

      Jan 7 years ago

      Thank you for a most informative and succinct explanation of this disease. I have 12 of the 14 symptoms listed and have been told in the past that my TSH was normal and that the symptoms probably were not related to the thyroid, but to stress of having knee replacement surgery and a recurrance of EBV. I was sent to a hematologist about anemia and he has decided to do a panel of tests to check on thyroid. I am finally having positive thoughts about improving my fatigue, etc.

      Thanks again.

    • DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

      DeBorrah K Ogans 8 years ago

      Mary Audet,

      Well written and very informative!

      Thank You for sharing!


    • Lily Rose profile image

      Lily Rose 8 years ago from East Coast

      Just found out last week that I have a hypothyroid - I think maybe the past year of cancer treatment caused it somehow. I'm going to the endocrinologist tomorrow and looking forward to learning more. Thanks for the great info.

    • l1blonde profile image

      l1blonde 8 years ago

      Great hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Really well-written, I had my thyroid remved completely in 2006, and even though I am on thyroxine and my blood levels supposedly normal, I have all those symptoms, every one of them!

    • R Burow profile image

      R Burow 8 years ago from Florida, United States

      Good well written information.

    • thelesleyshow profile image

      TheLesleyShow 8 years ago from US

      Very informative hub! Thanks for sharing.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Informative hub thank you. I think I'm just eating too much!