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Understanding Thyroid Problems -- Diagnosis and Treatment

How Do I Know If I Have a Thyroid Problem?

Your doctor can diagnose hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism by testing the levels of thyroid hormones in your blood. Doctors measure hormones secreted by the thyroid itself, as well as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), a chemical released by the pituitary gland that triggers hormone production in the thyroid.

When you are hypothyroid, higher quantities of TSH are circulating in your blood as your body attempts to increase production of thyroid hormones. The reverse is true with hyperthyroidism, in which TSH levels are below normal and circulating thyroid-hormone levels are high.

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To identify the cause of hyperthyroidism, doctors often use radioactive iodide uptake tests, which track the amount of iodide absorbed by the thyroid gland. Iodide, obtained from the foods we eat, is a key ingredient in the manufacture of thyroid hormone, so the amount of iodide the thyroid absorbs is a reliable indicator of how much hormone the gland is producing. For this test, the doctor places an instrument over your neck to measure how much background radioactivity there is. Then, you must swallow a small amount of radioactive iodide in liquid or capsule form. After a predetermined time (usually 4-6 hours and at 24 hours), the doctor again places an instrument over your neck to measure how much of the radioactive iodide has gathered in your thyroid.

If the test suggest that the gland is collecting excessive amounts of iodide, the doctor may then conduct a radioactive iodide uptake scan. In this test, the doctor uses a special film to create a picture that shows the exact location of the radioactive iodide in your thyroid gland. The scan will reveal, for example, if the iodide is collecting in nodules, indicating that the nodules are responsible for the excess hormone production. If the scan shows that the iodide is spread equally throughout the tissue, the whole thyroid is involved in the excess production.

Nodules that appear suddenly are typically fluid-filled cysts and are often benign. They can be evaluated with a noninvasive ultrasound exam. If blood tests indicate that the nodules are producing excess thyroid hormone, and if you have other symptoms, your doctor will treat you for hyperthyroidism.

In any case, you should receive periodic checkups if you have a nodule on your thyroid gland. Further tests will show if the nodule has the potential to become cancerous.

In most cases, however, doctors check for thyroid cancer by performing an aspiration, or biopsy, in which a tissue sample of the nodule is taken and examined. One rare type of thyroid cancer can be diagnosed through a blood test that measures levels of a hormone involved in bone formation. 

What Are the Treatments for Thyroid Problems?

For thyroid disorders stemming from the over- or under-production of thyroid hormones, both conventional and alternative treatments offer varied methods to restore hormone levels to their proper balance. Conventional treatments rely mainly on drugs and surgery. Alternative treatments attempt to relieve some of the discomfort associated with thyroid problems, or to improve the function of the thyroid gland through approaches ranging from diet supplements and herbal remedies to lifestyle changes and special exercises. 

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