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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Health Answers

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

Q. What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

A. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland — located in the neck just above the collar bone — stops producing enough thyroid hormones, which control the pace of metabolic activities in the body. Untreated hypothyroidism has been associated with complications such an enlarged thyroid, heart problems, lower fertility, birth defects, and impaired mental health.

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Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, dry skin, sensitivity to cold, muscle cramps or weakness, memory and cognitive problems, a deep or hoarse voice, and constipation. What’s tricky about hypothyroidism, explains Jeffrey Garber, chief of endocrinology at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, is that “there’s nothing really striking about any of those symptoms.” Even if you experience three or four of them, the odds are good that it’s for another reason. On the other hand, some people have low thyroid hormone levels without overt symptoms.

Given how nonspecific symptoms are, hypothyroidism can only be diagnosed with a laboratory test to measure thyroid hormone levels in the blood. Because the test is simple, Garber recommends getting checked if you notice any new symptoms that have no other explanation. Certain factors put you more at risk: being a woman over age 60, having recently been pregnant or given birth, having a history of autoimmune conditions, and having been exposed to high radiation levels such as cancer treatment.

Hypothyroidism can be treated with drugs that replace thyroid hormones. In cases of mild or “subclinical” hypothyroidism, it’s up to the patient and doctor to decide whether treatment is worthwhile.

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