A goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland. While it is usually associated with no symptoms, on occasion a goiter can cause swallowing or breathing difficulties. Other symptoms of a goiter can include visible swelling of the neck, coughing and tightness in the throat. Goiters are most common in women and older adults and can be caused by a number of different factors.
The presence of a goiter does not necessarily indicate a dysfunction of the thyroid gland. It points to an underlying illness in the gland, however, including disorders such as autoimmune thyroid disease (Graves' disease and Hashimotos' disease), other inflammatory disorders of the thyroid, nodular thyroid disease, and thyroid cancer. Goiters can also be seen in normal pregnancies.
Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid gland, is a condition that occurs when the thyroid gland secretes an excessive amount of thyroid hormones. This overproduction creates more thyroid hormones than the body needs and causes many important bodily functions to speed up. The thyroid is the gland in the front of the neck that controls energy use, metabolism, heart and nervous system functions and other metabolic functions. An overproduction of thyroid hormones can lead to weight loss, irregular heartbeat, and irritability. Hyperthyroidism is more common in people over the age of 60, and women are more likely than men to develop hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is a common condition that occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones to properly manage many important functions of the body. The thyroid is the gland in the front of the neck that controls energy use and metabolic functions. If the thyroid gland is not active enough, it does not make enough thyroid hormone to meet the body's needs and causes certain functions of the body to slow down. As a result, functions such as heart rate, brain function and the rate that the body converts food into energy, all slow down. Women over the age of 60 are at the highest risk for developing hypothyroidism. If left untreated, this condition may cause a variety of health complications including obesity, joint pain, infertility, and heart disease
Cancer of the thyroid gland typically presents as nodular thyroid disease. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous, however. When a nodule is thought to represent a risk for thyroid cancer, it is normally diagnosed with a procedure called a fine-needle aspiration biopsy. When a nodule is confirmed to be a thyroid cancer, then thyroid surgery is indicated. Fortunately, in most cases, thyroid cancer can be successfully treated with current treatment protocols.
During pregnancy, thyroid hormones are essential not only to the mother’s health, but to the developing baby’s brain and nervous system, too. Therefore, it is common to have thyroid hormone levels routinely assessed when a woman is found to be pregnant.
Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are diagnosed during pregnancy by assessing symptoms and taking a blood test. Mild hyperthyroidism must be closely monitored, but not necessarily treated. Moderate to severe cases of hyperthyroidism are treated with medication to slow the production of thyroid hormones. Hypothyroidism during pregnancy is treated with medication to restore levels of thyroid hormone to normal.
Thyroid nodules are focal areas of abnormal growths that occur in the thyroid gland. They may occur as a result of chronic inflammation in the gland, but also may have other causes. In many cases, the nodules are associated with thyroid enlargement (goiter), and there are often multiple nodules present (multinodular goiter). The underlying cause of the thyroid nodules is often unknown. Most thyroid nodules are not cancerous, but rather represent benign disease.
There are many different types of nodules that can form in the thyroid gland. While most do not cause any symptoms, occasionally a nodule can become large enough to produce local neck symptoms, such as a "sense of fullness" in the neck. Less commonly, nodules can result in excessive thyroid hormone production and may lead to symptoms such as weight loss, nervousness or a rapid heartbeat. Thyroid nodules require careful medical evaluation and follow-up to ensure that they do not cause medical problems for those patients affected with this problem.
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