WASHINGTON — A lot of people are walking around with hypothyroidism — a gland that doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone — without knowing it.
Doctors say it’s one of the most misdiagnosed conditions around. Dr. Kenneth Burman, chief of endocrinology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, says hypothyroidism affects about 10 percent of the U.S. population.
Some people are born with the condition; for others it’s an immune reaction, and some cases occur as the result of a virus, medication or surgery on the thyroid gland.
Burman — considered one of the area’s top experts on thyroid woes — says it is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms are what he calls “nonspecific” and easily mistaken for other maladies.
In its earliest stages, hypothyroidism may cause few symptoms. But as thyroid hormone production decreases, the body’s metabolism begins to slow, resulting in persistent tiredness, difficulty focusing and lethargy.
Burman says doctors tend to be on the lookout if the symptoms are brought to their attention. The problem is the changes may occur so slowly that patients aren’t aware that the reason for their fatigue may not be stress or overwork, but something in their neck.
The irony is that, although the symptoms may seem vague, hypothyroidism is technically fairly simple to diagnose: A family history is taken, followed by a physical and a series of blood tests to check for hormone levels in both the thyroid and the pituitary gland — which helps regulate the thyroid.
While these simple blood tests are not routine, a doctor will order them up for anyone for whom thyroid trouble is a probability.
“Everyone agrees if someone has symptoms that could potentially be related to thyroid abnormalities, that they should get the appropriate blood tests,” says Burman.
The test is straightforward, and so is the treatment. Hypothyroidism is generally treated with a daily dose of synthetic hormone. The patient’s weight and health determine the size of the original dosage, and often the therapy needs to be continued for life.
January is Thyroid Awareness Month. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinology is marking the occasion with the release of a new public awareness campaign “Hypothyroidism: Suspect, Detect, Defeat.”
© 2016 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.