When Nicky James began experiencing weight gain, low mood and tiredness, she put it down to stress. In her last year at university, she didn’t seek help for a year – until she realised she’d gone up five dress sizes.
“I realised then something wasn’t right, I was always a slim girl, around a size 8 to 10. Then I was a size 18 within less than a year and I knew my diet hadn’t changed,” she said.
But Nicky spent a further year suffering with her symptoms until she was eventually diagnosed with an underactive thyroid aged 21.
“My GP kept telling me I was depressed and was offering me anti-depressants. I was getting emotional in the doctor’s room because I knew there was something else wrong and nothing was being done about it.”
Napping every day
An underactive thyroid (known as hypothyroidism) affects about one in 20 people but is more common in older age and among women.
It was when Nicky, now 29, from Tilbury, Essex, saw another GP that she had a blood test and the condition was detected. She says it was a relief to finally understand the problem. “I knew I wasn’t just depressed,” she said. “I was having to nap every day.
“My hair is very brittle and tends to suffer breakages and falls out more easily. I get aching joints too.”
Do you have an underactive thyroid?
Symptoms usually develop slowly and you may not realise you have a medical problem for several years.
Common symptoms include: tiredness; being sensitive to cold; weight gain; constipation; depression; slow movements and thoughts; muscle aches and weakness; muscle cramps; and dry and scaly skin.
It can also cause brittle hair and nails; loss of libido; pain, numbness and a tingling sensation in the hand and fingers (carpal tunnel syndrome); and irregular periods or heavy periods.
Elderly people with an underactive thyroid may develop memory problems and depression. Children may experience slower growth and development. Teenagers may start puberty earlier than normal.
Source: NHS Choices
Avoided serious complications
Nicky was treated with levothyroxine, a synthetic version of the hormone thyroxine (T4) produced by the thyroid gland. Low levels of this, and another hormone triiodothyronine (T3), can change the way the body processes fat. This can cause high cholesterol and atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries), which can potentially lead to serious heart-related problems, such as angina and a heart attack.
If untreated, hypothyroidism can also cause goitre (an abnormal swelling of the thyroid gland that causes a lump to form in the throat), pregnancy problems and a life-threatening condition called myxoedema coma. Patients can also develop a low-pitched and hoarse voice; a puffy-looking face; thinned or partly missing eyebrows; a slow heart rate; hearing loss; and anaemia.
Nicky says thanks to the medication, she’s managed to go on to run a six-figure business as a branding coach.
“I’m on tablets for life now and while I still struggle with my weight and I still have some off days, I’ve been able to live a healthy, active life. I’m nowhere near as exhausted as I used to be and I’m just so glad my condition was finally found and I haven’t had any of the complications.”
Thyroid disease ‘being over-treated’
Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are being prescribed thyroid drugs unnecessarily, according to researchers.
A group of doctors advise against lifelong hormone treatment for mild underactive hypothyroidism as they warn there is not enough evidence it helps in these cases.
The daily tablets do not appear to ease symptoms such as tiredness, low mood and weight gain, they wrote in an article published in the BMJ. Almost all adults with mild or “subclinical” underactive thyroid patients will not benefit from hormone treatment, they claim.
They warn there is “uncertainty” over potential harms and that taking a pill and attending lifelong check-ups is burdensome.
NHS guidelines currently acknowledge that many patients will not need treatment but add that for some trying medication may be worthwhile.
Patients should not stop taking their medication, the experts stressed. Anyone who has concerns should discuss them with their GP.
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