Health Care

Hashimoto's Disease: 6 Things to Know

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Model Gigi Hadid usually makes headlines for her runway looks, but she recently landed in the spotlight after revealing her battle with Hashimoto's disease.

Millions of Americans live with this common autoimmune disorder, which can have widespread symptoms including changes in body weight, fatigue and increased sensitivity to cold.

Dr. Tanton, an endocrinologist at AdventHealth, weighs in with six important things to know about Hashimoto's disease.

Hashimoto's disease is an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid.

The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits in the throat just below the Adam's apple, is one of the body's most important organs. When working properly, it produces hormones that help regulate the body's metabolism, growth and development, mood and more.

Hashimoto's disease develops when the immune system mistakenly attacks and inflames the thyroid, disrupting its ability to produce those vital hormones. This can have serious, far-reaching effects on the body's functions.

Many of the body's systems are controlled, in some way, by the thyroid, states Dr. Tanton. As such, proper functioning of this gland is essential to an overall sense of well-being.

Hashimoto's is the most common thyroid disorder in the U.S.

Thyroid diseases, in general, are common, affecting millions of Americans each year. Underactive thyroid diseases, like Hashimoto's, affect around 1 in 20 Americans, while overactive thyroid diseases occur in about 1 in 100.

While we do not know, exactly, what triggers this autoimmune attack, we do have simple blood tests that can diagnose Hashimoto's, says Dr. Tanton. The thyroid stimulating hormone [TSH] and thyroid peroxidase antibodies [TPO Ab] are two labs that can help detect this process while it is still early in its development.

Women are much more likely to have Hashimoto's disease than men.

Despite the prevalence of Hashimoto's, doctors are unsure of its exact cause. However, there are a few factors that increase a person's likelihood of developing Hashimoto's first and foremost, being a woman.

Dr. Tanton: For some reason, women are much more vulnerable to all autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto's. Our endocrinologists are, therefore, on high-alert and screen frequently, especially when female patients complain of typical hypothyroid symptoms.

Other risk factors for Hashimoto's include:

  • Age (middle age is when most Hashimoto's patients are diagnosed)
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Family history of autoimmune diseases
  • Having another autoimmune disease

Its symptoms can be very easy to overlook

Rather than an illness or sudden onset of symptoms, Hashimoto's disease usually takes years to progress. Symptoms are wide-ranging and tend to come on gradually, which can make them easy to miss or confuse with other conditions.

Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired or sluggish
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Brittle fingernails and hair loss
  • Constipation
  • Pale skin
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Puffy face
  • Weakness and muscle aches
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Long and excessive menstruation
  • Joint pain
  • Depression
  • Memory lapses

Unfortunately, many of the above symptoms are both non-specific [can be caused by many different conditions] and subtle, so early Hashimoto's is often missed, states Dr. Tanton.
Having a combination of these symptoms can be a strong indicator of Hashimoto's disease, but a blood test measuring thyroid function is needed to make a formal diagnosis.

Quick treatment of Hashimoto's disease can reverse its symptoms.

Upon diagnosis of Hashimoto's, many patients will begin taking a synthetic hormone medication to rebalance their hormone levels. There is no cure for Hashimoto's, but when the disease is caught early and treated quickly, a patient may be relieved of most or all of the symptoms.

Dr. Tanton: Fortunately, the body cannot differentiate between native thyroid hormone [as produced by a normal functioning gland] and an appropriate dose of synthetic hormone. As such, all thyroid-dependent functions should return to normal with full replacement.

Patients who require medication will likely need to continue treatment indefinitely to ensure their thyroid function remains healthy. In very rare cases, the thyroid may need to be surgically removed, especially if the gland is extremely large and cause problems swallowing or breathing.

If Hashimoto's is left untreated, complications can be life-threatening.

Because the hormones produced by the thyroid are so vital to the body's functions, untreated Hashimoto's can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications. These include:

  • Goiter (an enlarged thyroid that causes a visible swelling of the throat)
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Depression and other mental health issues
  • Birth defects in babies born to women with long-term, untreated Hashimoto's
  • Myxedema, a rare and potentially fatal coma

If you suspect you might have Hashimoto's disease, schedule an appointment with your general physician to discuss your symptoms. If a blood test reveals Hashimoto's, your doctor will quickly help put you on a path to relief and healing.

The good news is that Hashimoto's can be detected early [with TSH and TPO Ab] and treated completely [with synthetic hormone replacement], says Dr. Tanton. It is, therefore, very important to undergo a thorough evaluation by a hormone specialist [endocrinologist] if you believe that you may have this condition.

If you're interested in finding out more about Hashimoto's disease or other thyroid conditions, visit our website or call Call855-303-DOCS.

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