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A silent epidemic

Jennifer Kursman
By Jennifer Kursman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
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It started out innocently enough. Tired from a long run, I pushed open the front door, flopped down on the couch and kicked off my shoes. Across the living room, my mom looked up from her book and gasped. "What on earth is wrong with your feet? Are you in pain?" she wanted to know.

Well, not really, but I was tired. More tired than I had ever felt in my whole life, come to think of it, which was especially odd, since I used to feel so energetic after running. It did seem that my feet were pretty swollen, so I went to the doctor's office. After examining my feet, my doctor's eyes bulged. She called the four remaining physicians into my room, and as their expressions changed from curiosity to worry, I started to feel anxious.

"You have to go the hospital," my doctor commanded. "Right now. Hurry."

But I wasn't sick! I felt perfectly fine, just tired. Really, really, tired ...

To make a long story short, I ended up spending over two weeks at the hospital recovering from an extremely underactive thyroid gland. My thyroid was so inflamed that an endocrinologist took a picture of my neck, saying it was the worst case he'd ever seen. Maybe he'll submit that photo to a medical textbook company, and then I'll be ... famous. Yeah.

Anyway, I don't usually write columns about my personal life, but after learning that thyroid disorders are so common - and so frequently misdiagnosed - I feel it's important to spread the word on this under-reported and potentially life-threatening endocrine disease.

Basically, the thyroid gland, located in one's neck, is part of the body's endocrine system. It regulates metabolism by making thyroid hormone, which in turn affects cell activity. When an inadequate amount of thyroid hormone is produced, the body makes more thyroid-stimulating hormone, which results in an enlarged thyroid gland, or a "compensatory goiter." Left undiagnosed, an underactive thyroid can wreak havoc on all other parts of the body - in my case, elevating my heart enzymes, making my feet swell up and lowering my heart rate into the low 40s.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism - fatigue, weakness, depression, muscle aches - are so common that it's easy to write them off. Furthermore, thyroid disorders are more common in women than in men, and frequently patients are stereotyped as emotional hypochondriacs; doctors say that the symptoms are "all in your head."

Thyroid treatment is about as painless as can be: a synthetic form of the hormone taken as a pill every morning. And thyroid testing is simple - a standard blood draw to determine hormone levels. Yet according to endocrinologist journals, although over 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, millions more have not been diagnosed and continue to suffer.

Thyroid testing needs to become a mandatory portion of a physical exam, and certainly included in a standard complete blood count. At the very least, people with a genetic history of thyroid disorders should have their hormone levels tested often, since hormone balances can fluctuate without warning. The public needs to wake up to the dangers of this creeping, insidious and readily treatable disease.

Jennifer Kursman is a biology junior. She can be reached at

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