Thyroid dysfunction affects the entire body including your feet. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the middle of the lower neck. This thyroid gland is responsible for a wide range of bodily activities. For example, the thyroid gland releases hormones and regulates many aspects of your health such as your breathing, heart rate, central and peripheral nervous systems such as hands and feet, body weight, muscle strength, body temperature, menstrual cycle, cholesterol levels and much more.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, in the United States, hypothyroidism (under active thyroid or low thyroid hormone levels) affects around 4.6 percent of people aged 12 years or older. However, most of these individuals experience only mild symptoms. Hypothyroidism is more likely to occur in women and people over the age of 60. Women over 35 years of age have a higher risk of thyroid disorder, estimated at more than 30 percent. Women are five to eight times more likely to have a thyroid problem than men and one in eight women will likely develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
How thyroid disease affects our feet
Hypothyroidism can affect a person’s muscles and joints in numerous ways, causing aches, pains, stiffness, swelling of the joints, tenderness and weakness, especially in arms and legs. The underactive thyroid, can lead to several types of foot pain, including joint and muscle pain brought on by swelling in the feet, ankles and legs. The joints can become still and inflamed, leading to joint disease known as arthropathy. Research also suggests a link between thyroid disorders and rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune condition that causes painful swelling in the lining of the joints. Pain is a common but often overlooked symptom of underlying thyroid disease. Effective treatment for both hyper and hypothyroidism will help people manage their pain as well.
Tarsal tunnel disease
People with hypothyroidism can also develop tarsal tunnel syndrome in the feet. Tarsal tunnel sometimes develops as a result of a pinched nerve or muscle damage in the foot. Swelling in the muscles of the foot can place pressure on the nerves as well. It causes burning and a tingling pain sensation most common in the arch of the foot although the pain can occur throughout the foot. “Burning feet syndrome” (Grierson-Gopalan syndrome) can also cause foot pain in persons with hypothyroidism. The feet aches and the skin temperature actually elevates.
Dry, cracked heels
This results when the underactive thyroid gland under-regulates the sweat glands in your feet, so they produce less sweat and the feet become very dry. This affects the skin in various ways and can cause symptoms such as dry, coarse, pale, thin, and scaly skin. It can lead to thick, leather-like dryness, deep cracks or painful fissures on the heels of the feet.
The thyroid controls overall metabolism. When thyroid function is low, metabolism slows down, which then lowers the temperature of the entire body, which leads to cold hands and feet. Some people with low levels of thyroid hormones may feel cold all the time or have a low tolerance of the cold. This feeling of coldness can persist, even when in a warm room or during the summer months. People with hypothyroidism often report having cold hands or feet, although they may feel that their whole body is cold as well. These symptoms do not only occur in hypothyroidism however, circulation problems or anemia can also cause people to feel cold hands and feet. Seeing the doctor will help decide which condition you have.
Weak hair and nails
Both too much and too little thyroid hormone can result in changes of the nails, both the fingernails and toenails. Nail changes seen in hypothyroidism (low) include slow nail growth, thick, dry, cracked, brittle, yellow nails, dry cuticles, longitudinal ridges, onycholysis (separation or lifting of nail from nail bed) and spoon-shaped nails (koilonychia). Nail changes seen in hyperthyroidism include fast nail growth, pitted and discolored nails, no lunulae (half-moons at base of the nail) and cuticles and onycholysis (separation or lifting of nail from nail bed; Plummer’s nail) and clubbing of fingers and toes. These symptoms usually clear up once people begin thyroid hormone therapy and taking vitamins for hair skin and nails may help as well.
Pruritus is the medical term for itchy skin. Chronic pruritus can present in both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Itchiness can happen all over the body not just the feet, including the arms, legs, scalp, etc. In the case of hypothyroidism, it may be the very dry skin that’s causing the itchiness. Some researchers suggest that pruritus and even chronic urticaria (chronic hives) may be associated with thyroid diseases.
Increased risk of infections of the feet, hands, fingernails, and toenails such as onychomycosis (nail fungus) and Athlete’s foot (foot fungus) occurs in both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. One of the classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism is excessive sweating, and that includes on the feet. Too much sweat on your skin can be a breeding ground for bacteria, and that can make things smelly.
Our feet can tell us a great deal about our thyroid health. They can often show obvious signs of disease years and even decades before a thyroid diagnosis. If you have thyroid disease and are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your primary care doctor as soon as possible. For treatment of these foot conditions, see your podiatrist.
• For more information on foot conditions, visit www.apma.org, healthcentral.com, or email us at email@example.com. To see a podiatrist, visit Bahamas Foot Centre, Rosetta Street, or telephone 325-2996 for an appointment at Bahamas Surgical Associates Centre, Hilltop Medical, or call 394-5820 for an appointment. You can also visit Lucayan Medical Centre in Freeport, Grand Bahama, or telephone 373-7400 for an appointment.