13 Common Thyroid Myths
Mary Shomon | April 5, 2018
It’s the tiny gland that packs a punch. Despite the thyroid gland’s importance to every physical function, and the prevalence of thyroid disease — more than 20 million Americans have a thyroid condition — it’s an area ripe for myths and misinformation. Let’s look at 13 common myths about thyroid disease and thyroid treatment.
Only women get thyroid disease
One of the common myths about thyroid disease is that it only affects women — especially middle-aged or older women. Not true! While thyroid disease is 5 to 8 times more common in women, it also strikes men, especially as they get older. And infants, children, and teenagers of both genders can also have thyroid conditions.
Your doctor evaluates your thyroid in a typical physical exam
Have you ever said: “If I had a thyroid problem, my doctor would tell me?” If you have an annual physical, it’s likely that your doctor never examines your thyroid. (He or she would need to feel your neck for lumps or enlargement.) What about that standard bloodwork your doctor runs? It typically doesn’t include a thyroid panel unless your doctor requests it. When it comes to your thyroid, don’t assume that no news is good news.
Thyroid disease is easy to diagnose
One of the most often-repeated myths is that “thyroid disease is easy to diagnose.” Millions of thyroid patients beg to differ. With sometimes vague symptoms like fatigue and weight gain, thyroid disease is frequently overlooked, or misdiagnosed as depression or menopause. Then there’s the controversy of how to diagnose thyroid problems. Some doctors disagree with the standard “reference range” for blood test results, leaving millions of potential thyroid patients undiagnosed.
Thyroid disease is easy to treat
Along with “easy to diagnose,” the idea that “thyroid disease is easy to treat” is another popular myth. Let’s be clear: In some cases, the standard treatment for hypothyroidism — a levothyroxine drug like Synthroid — will quickly resolve your symptoms. Easy, right? Still, many people with an underactive thyroid have unresolved symptoms despite treatment. These patients require a careful, sometimes time-consuming — and not easy — trial-and-error process to get optimal treatment.
Everyone with Graves' disease needs radioactive iodine (RAI)
In the United States, doctors often present radioactive iodine (RAI) as the first-line treatment for Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism. Outside the United States, antithyroid drugs — which offer the possibility of remission — are the first-line treatment. This “rush to RAI” is often premature and overlooks the fact that some Graves’/hyperthyroid patients can achieve remission, or manage their conditions for decades with antithyroid drug treatment.
Everyone with thyroid cancer needs thyroid surgery
In the past, any positive diagnosis of thyroid cancer was followed by surgery — known as thyroidectomy — to remove the thyroid gland. Now, researchers are looking at the size and type of thyroid cancer, and the age and prognosis of the patient. Increasingly, thyroid cancer experts are recommending “active surveillance” — also known as watchful waiting — for small, slow-growing papillary thyroid cancer.
Levothyroxine is the only treatment for hypothyroidism
Many conventional healthcare providers present levothyroxine drugs — synthetic T4 drugs like Synthroid, Levoxyl, or Tirosint — as the only treatment for hypothyroidism. This pervasive myth is simply not true. There are several other options, and some may work better for you. The options include: Synthetic T3, such as liothyronine (Cytomel), or time-released compounded T3 Natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) drugs, like Nature-throid or Armour Thyroid.
Women who ask for thyroid testing and treatment just want to lose weight
Back in the “Valley of the Dolls” and “Peyton Place” days, some doctors got a bad name prescribing amphetamines and thyroid medications for weight loss. Half a century later, the myth still prevails that when an overweight woman goes to the doctor and asks for thyroid testing and treatment, she’s really looking for a quick-fix, magic diet pill. Even though weight gain is a symptom of hypothyroidism, some doctors go overboard in the other direction to avoid testing and treatment for and underactive thyroid.
Natural thyroid drugs are made from cows
Speaking of natural desiccated thyroid, there are still doctors — and in some cases, advocacy groups — that spread the myth that prescription NDT drugs available in the United States are made from cows. That launches them into concerns about getting “mad cow disease” from NDT. This is, frankly, ridiculous. All NDT drugs in the United States are porcine — from pigs — and pose no risk of prion-borne diseases.
Natural thyroid drugs are going off the market
A common rumor that goes around periodically is that “NDT drugs are going off the market.” To date, there is no evidence that NDT drugs — which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and have been legally prescribed for more than 100 years — will be taken off the market. Some doctors have reported that they “heard” this myth repeated by drug company representatives…from NDT’s levothyroxine competitors.
Thyroid nodules mean you have cancer
It’s a myth that if you have nodules — lumps or bumps — in your thyroid gland that you have thyroid cancer. An estimated 95 percent of thyroid nodules are benign, and nodules are common in the population, especially as we get older. You should always have thyroid nodules evaluated by a knowledgeable healthcare provider, but keep in mind that the odds are, you don’t have cancer.
Thyroid cancer is the “good” cancer
An especially aggravating myth spread by doctors is that “thyroid cancer is the good cancer.” This is meant to be reassuring because most types of thyroid cancer are treatable and highly survivable. But the word “cancer” itself is frightening, and some types of thyroid cancer are serious. Even healthy thyroid cancer survivors will tell you that the process of surgery, radioactive iodine, lifelong monitoring, and subsequent treatment for hypothyroidism is hard to describe as “good.”
Everyone with a thyroid problem needs an endocrinologist
Finally, for many diseases, we turn to specialists for in-depth knowledge, diagnosis, and treatment. So, it’s natural to assume that if you have a thyroid condition, you should see a thyroid specialist — namely, an endocrinologist. This is a myth. Many people with hypothyroidism are diagnosed and treated effectively by general practitioners, gynecologists, integrative/holistic doctors, and other physicians. That said, if you have thyroid cancer, nodules, or Graves’ disease/hyperthyroidism, it’s important to see an endocrinologist.