Most people don’t really think about their thyroid unless they’ve been diagnosed with a hormonal condition. But since women are more likely than men to develop thyroid diseases – usually after pregnancy or after menopause – it’s important to educate ourselves about this small yet mighty endocrine gland. 

Let’s start with the basics: The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland found at the base of the neck, and it’s part of the body’s endocrine system. As such, the thyroid makes and releases the hormones that control your metabolism, aka, how the body uses energy. 

When the thyroid isn’t working properly, however, it can cause a whole slew of problems, including restlessness, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, weight gain, weight loss, and countless other worrisome symptoms. But if you think you may have a thyroid condition, rest assured that you are not alone. 

woman struggling with fatigue

Here are just a handful of statistics from the American Thyroid Association:

  • More than 12% of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime.

  • An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease.

  • Up to 60% of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.

  • Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.

  • One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

So how do you go about obtaining a thyroid condition diagnosis? Usually, your medical provider will conduct a series of tests to measure certain hormones and antibodies in your blood. If you have too many or too few of these hormones/antibodies, it could mean you have thyroid disease. 

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend specific blood tests called a full thyroid panel. To better explain what a full thyroid panel entails, and how patients can request one, Rescripted spoke with Babak Larian, MD, FACS, a board-certified head and neck surgeon and Director of the CENTER for Advanced Parathyroid Surgery in Los Angeles. 

What is a full thyroid panel?

A full thyroid panel consists of three tests, and they measure the levels of these three hormones and antibodies in your blood:

  1. TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone)

  2. Free T4 (thyroxine) 

  3. Free T3 (tri-iodothyronine)

“The purpose [of these tests] is to see if the TSH, [which is] produced in the brain, and the T4 and T3, which are products of the thyroid gland, are in balance and are adequately reflecting the body's needs for metabolism,” explains Dr. Larian. 

woman applying pressure to arm after having her blood drawn

Why would a patient need a full thyroid panel?

Two of the most common problems affecting the thyroid are hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid): 

  • Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid stops producing enough hormone, generally the result of the autoimmune disorder Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes the gland to stop working. 

  • Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid does the opposite of hypothyroidism; it makes too much hormone. A different autoimmune disorder, Graves’ disease, or a metabolically active thyroid nodule, tends to be the culprit. 

If a patient is presenting with certain symptoms that could indicate either of these conditions, a full thyroid panel may be ordered. In the case of hypothyroidism, Dr. Larian says the patient will likely exhibit “fatigue, weight gain despite not increasing consumption, cold sensitivity, or dry skin.” Other possible symptoms include feeling sad or depressed, thinning hair, and more menstrual bleeding than usual. If it’s a case of hyperthyroidism, Dr. Larian says symptoms include “unexpected weight loss, abnormal heart rhythm or palpitations, and insomnia.” Additional symptoms to look out for are feelings of nervousness or anxiety, increased sweating, and fewer and lighter menstrual periods than usual.

How to ask for a full thyroid panel

If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, or have a family history of thyroid problems, Dr. Larian recommends speaking to your medical provider about a full thyroid panel: “They should list the symptoms they are having and ask their doctor, based on the symptoms, if the physician feels they could have thyroid hormone abnormalities.” 

In addition, even if the patient isn’t experiencing symptoms, Dr. Larian recommends that people have their thyroid levels tested during their yearly physical exam starting at age 30. Considering how common thyroid conditions are, it’s not a bad idea to speak to your provider about annual checks. 

But don’t wait until your physical to ask your doctor about a full thyroid panel if you’re experiencing symptoms. Make sure you get your thyroid levels checked right away.

doctor giving patient results of a full thyroid panel

What happens after a full thyroid panel?

Dr. Larian says it usually takes about three days to get your results. “If there is an abnormality in the hormone levels,” he says, “then the person will need further blood tests to see what is causing the hormonal abnormality.” Next steps typically include a thyroid ultrasound, and a referral to an endocrinologist, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, or a surgeon who specializes in thyroid procedures. 

The good news is, that most thyroid conditions, while lifelong, are manageable when they’re caught early and supported under a doctor’s care. Hypothyroidism, for example, is treated with daily medication that replaces the body’s thyroid hormone. Hyperthyroidism can also be treated with medication, as well as with radioactive iodine therapy or surgery to remove some or all of the thyroid.

Sarene Leeds holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.