For such a small gland, the thyroid has a big job. It keeps your body working properly.
It regulates your metabolism and helps with growth. It can even change your heart rate. But do you
need routine screening to make sure you don’t have a thyroid problem?
What the research says
More people are being treated for thyroid disease. It’s a common problem for an aging population. But sometimes you can have a thyroid problem without any symptoms. This condition is called thyroid dysfunction. It’s when your pituitary gland makes too much or too little thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH tells your thyroid to make its own hormones that help with body function. Thyroid hormone levels are often normal if you have thyroid dysfunction.
Research suggests thyroid dysfunction can harm your health. It may raise your risk for heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat and heart failure. Some studies have also linked it to thinking and memory troubles. What’s more, thyroid dysfunction may turn into thyroid disease. That’s when both TSH and thyroid hormone levels are above or below normal for a long period of time.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently reviewed the latest research on screening for and treating thyroid dysfunction in adults. These experts wanted to know if screening for the problem would be helpful. For instance, could it improve quality of life and lower the risk for other diseases? Their conclusion: There isn’t enough evidence yet to say either way. So they don’t recommend it. Plus screening may result in needless worry about testing and unnecessary treatment.
When you should be tested
The symptoms of a thyroid problem aren’t always clear. That’s particularly true if you have only thyroid dysfunction. For example, you may feel tired or hyper. You may gain or lose weight. You may feel hot or cold. These symptoms can be signs of many other health problems.
Thyroid disease tends to cause more obvious symptoms. But they depend on what type of thyroid problem you have. If your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, you have an overactive thyroid. It’s also called hyperthyroidism. You may feel nervous, anxious, or irritable. You may also have hand tremors, a racing heartbeat, and problems sleeping.
If your thyroid makes too little thyroid hormone, you may have an underactive thyroid—or hypothyroidism. In this case, symptoms may not be as easily noticed. They may include cold sensations, fatigue, dry skin, memory problems, and depression.
The USPSTF and many other experts may not recommend screening for a thyroid problem in healthy adults. But if you have any unexplained symptoms that suggest an overactive or underactive thyroid, talk with your healthcare provider. People who are at high risk for a thyroid problem, such as those with a family history of thyroid disease, should also think about regular testing. A blood test can detect a thyroid problem. Treatment may include medicine or surgery.