What is hypothyroidism, and how do I know if I have it?

Are you concerned about hypothyroidism for yourself or a loved one?

Have you heard the word 'hypothyroidism' mentioned in passing but wanted to do some heavier research on what hypothyroidism is and if there's a chance you could have it?

What is hypothyroidism?

As the most common thyroid disorder in Australia, hypothyroidism affects the thyroid gland chronically.

The condition is also known as 'underactive thyroid'.

The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck and produces hormones responsible for controlling the body's metabolism.

These include heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and body temperature.

In hypothyroidism, the thyroid does not produce enough hormones to regulate metabolism due to an underactive thyroid.

This can occur because the thyroid gland is diseased (primary hypothyroidism) or because the pituitary gland is not sending signals to the thyroid to produce sufficient hormones (secondary hypothyroidism).

It is common for hypothyroidism to be caused by Hashimoto's disease.

How common is hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism affects 1 in every 33 Australians. Women are more likely to suffer from it than men and those over 60. In Australia, it is the most common thyroid disease.

How to tell if you have hypothyroidism?

If you have hypothyroidism, you may feel tired, gain weight, and have difficulty coping with cold weather.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and weight gain, may not be noticeable at first.

It may seem like they are just an inevitable part of growing older.

However, as your metabolism slows, you may develop more-obvious symptoms. Look at hypothyroidism's signs and symptoms below to know what to look out for.

Hypothyroidism signs and symptoms

The symptoms of hypothyroidism differ from person to person.

The following are some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism

  • Feeling fatigued
  • Gaining weight
  • Trouble tolerating cold
  • Pain in the joints and muscles
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation
  • Hair thinning or dry skin
  • Menstrual problems or irregular periods
  • Heart rate slowed
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Puffy face
  • A pale appearance

What causes hypothyroidism?

Hashimoto's disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in Australia.

The thyroid gland is attacked by the immune system in this autoimmune disorder.

There are several causes of hypothyroidism, including:

  • Hashimoto's disease
  • Thyroiditis, or thyroid inflammation
  • Congenital hypothyroidism, or hypothyroidism, present from birth
  • The removal of part or all of the thyroid gland by surgery
  • Thyroid radiation treatment
  • Some medicines
  • Genetic disorders
  • Iodine deficiency (this is not a common cause in Australia)
  • Treatments for cancer using immunotherapies

How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms of hypothyroidism, it's best to see your GP for a check-up.

During this doctor's appointment, your doctor will likely discuss your medical history and any related family health history, especially related to thyroid disease or autoimmune disorders.

Your GP will also ask about recent illnesses, radiation therapy, pregnancy history, and current medications or concerns.

After questioning, your doctor will conduct a physical examination.

This is likely to include checking the front of your neck to examine for any thyroid swelling and your heart rate and reflexes.

If, after these two steps, your doctor suggests that you may have hypothyroidism, two further tests will be conducted.

  1. Measuring your thyroid stimulating hormone – This blood test will measure the level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This blood test will likely need to be sent to a lab for results. Hypothyroidism is unlikely if TSH levels are normal.
  2. Measuring your thyroid antibodies – The presence of thyroid antibodies in the blood can be used to check for autoimmune thyroid disease. It is possible to perform this test on the same sample as the thyroid function test.

Treatment for hypothyroidism – thyroid hormone replacement

Through thyroid hormone replacement, symptoms can be improved and normal body function restored. In most cases, this means lifelong treatment.

This treatment involves creating a hormone replacement that replicates the hormone your thyroid can no longer make itself.

Although this medicine is usually prescribed in pill form, it can also be obtained in liquid form and a soft gel capsule form.

Seeking or keeping employment with hypothyroidism

If you are having difficulty finding or maintaining employment with your hypothyroidism, check out our blog 'How to find a good job if you're living with hypothyroidism' or contact APM to find out if you are eligible for government-funded employment support.

Support is available if you have difficulty finding a job or returning to work with hypothyroidism. One of APM's supported conditions is hypothyroidism.

This means it is possible for you to apply for Disability Employment Services, a government-funded program that assists people with illnesses, injuries and disabilities to find and keep jobs.

Participation in the program is free of charge since it is funded by the Australian Government.

Providers of Disability Employment Services like APM can help you find job opportunities, plan your career, and prepare for a job search.

Whether you're interested in changing careers or need support to stay in your current position, APM is here to help.

Our support helps thousands of people like you succeed at work and achieve their goals. Find out if you qualify for Disability Employment Services. Call APM on 1800 276 276.