I am sitting on the edge of an exam table, a little giddy because I believe I have found an endocrinologist who will diagnose and treat me for the chronic fatigue, 30-pound weight gain, excruciating migraines, and other symptoms that have been holding me hostage in my own body for years. Seconds later I am weeping, face in my dripping hands, as she tells me that my blood tests are normal, my thyroid is normal; “there’s nothing wrong with you.” The long list of symptoms I brought with me is arbitrary and irrelevant to her.
She is Dr. #3. It won’t be until Dr. #6 that I will stop the tears and the exhaustion and the mental fog that have robbed me of most of the last decade of my life.
An estimated 10 to 15% of Americans—that’s 30 or 40 million people—have poorly functioning thyroid glands and don’t know it. Some suffer from a combination of debilitating symptoms that include chronic fatigue, migraines, muscle weakness, hair loss, unexplained weight gain, inability to concentrate—the list goes on and on—but are turned away by doctor after doctor with the assurance that their blood tests are normal.
Why do mainstream doctors miss the diagnosis so often? “Their training teaches them to place a secondary value on their own clinical observations,” says Dr. Steven Lager, a board-certified physician specializing in thyroid disorders. “If a sophisticated lab test tells them otherwise, they don’t need to rely on their patients’ symptoms and their own judgment.”
I am one of the millions with multiple symptoms and a family history of thyroid disease whose TSH blood test is within “normal” range…If we are middle-aged and female (as many of us are), we are likely to be told that our symptoms are perimenopausal and be handed an Rx for an antidepressant.
I am one of the millions with multiple symptoms and a family history of thyroid disease whose TSH blood test is within “normal” range. We try our best to keep up with our jobs, our spouses, our children. We may fall asleep at the wheel or slip away from the family party to lie down. If we are middle-aged and female (as many of us are), we are likely to be told that our symptoms are perimenopausal and be handed an Rx for an antidepressant.
Conventional doctors easily confuse the once-classic symptoms of hypothyroidism (a thyroid gland that is producing little or no thyroid hormone) with vague problems associated with stress or aging. If it goes untreated long enough, your adrenal glands will try to pick up the slack. When they’re shot, too, you will be functioning at a very low level indeed.
The trick is to find a doctor who will test you for Free T3, Free T4, and thyroid antibodies. This will rarely be an endocrinologist—more likely an osteopath or integrative practitioner (you may have luck finding one here). The “Free” levels measure the amount of thyroid hormone actually in your cells—not just circulating in the bloodstream, where it may never finish its journey to do you any good. Thyroid antibodies may be more commonly tested, but their presence may not be the cry for help it should be. The first endocrinologist I was referred to by my PCP (when he noticed a swelling on both sides of my throat, long after I had complained to him of fatigue and a headache about 80% of the time) found plenty of antibodies—meaning my immune system was attacking my thyroid as a foreign invader. His response? None. My TSH fell within range. It would be over a year before any treatment would begin, a year in which my thyroid gland would busily continue to destroy itself and sprout multiple nodules.
With today’s mind-set, a blood lab would trump a patient’s self-report. If the concept behind the lab test is faulty, as many say it is for thyroid testing, no amount of symptoms or suffering will persuade a mainstream doctor to treat you.
For 100 years, up until the 1970s and the introduction of the one-size-fits-all approach to thyroid management, patients had been treated with the natural thyroid hormone replacement Armour. Thyroid sufferers were treated based on the symptoms they described to their doctors. With today’s mind-set, a blood lab would trump a patient’s self-report. If the concept behind the lab test is faulty, as many say it is for thyroid testing, no amount of symptoms or suffering will persuade a mainstream doctor to treat you.
Over many months, I slowly increased the Armour until I reached the optimal dose for me. I lost the 30 pounds and gained a normal level of energy and concentration. I am grateful to have my life back, but it shouldn’t have taken several years and several doctors to get the help I needed. There is a grassroots movement to bring patients the information and resources we need. Spread the word to anyone you know who is still suffering.
Find Out More
- Broda O. Barnes, M.D., and Lawrence Galton, Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness (Harper & Row)
- Steven F. Hotze, M.D., Hormones, Health, and Happiness: A Natural Medical Formula for Rediscovering Youth with Bioidentical Hormones (Grand Central Publishing)
- Stephen E. Langer, M.D., and James F. Scheer, Solved: The Riddle of Illness (McGraw-Hill)
- Richard Shames and Karilee Shames, Feeling Fat, Fuzzy, or Frazzled? A 3-Step Program to Restore Thyroid, Adrenal, and Reproductive Balance, Beat Hormone Havoc, and Feel Better Fast (Plume)
- Mary J. Shomon, Living Well with Hypothyroidism: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You…That You Need to Know (Morrow)
- “Stop the Thyroid Madness” website