What was once a little known part of the body, the thyroid has gained much attention in recent years, mainly because it plays such an important role in how well the body's metabolism works. When the thyroid isn't functioning properly it can lead to a whole host of problems.
What Is It?
Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, is what happens when the thyroid produces too much of the thyroid hormones. These hormones control the body's metabolism.
The thyroid is a small, walnut shaped gland located at the frontal base of the neck. It is responsible for producing the hormones thryoxine (T4) and triiodothryonine (T5). These hormones control how every cell in the body uses energy. When the thyroid doesn't function properly a person can develop a variety of problems from weight fluctuations to fertility issues.
There are a number of things that can affect how well the thyroid functions. They include:
- Too much iodine: Iodine is found in many the green leafy vegetables that people eat, but it's richest source is sea kelp. An iodine derivative is also added to table salt.
- Graves' Disease: This is an autoimmune disease that causes the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormones. It is the cause of about 70 percent of overactive thyroid cases.
- Toxic Adenoma: Also called Plummer's disease or toxic multinodular goiter, these are non-cancerous growths on the thyroid that cause it to enlarge and produce too much T4 hormone.
- Thyroiditis: This is inflammation of the thyroid and it can occur for a number of reasons including some viral infections. Often the reason is not known.
- Pituitary problems: Often problems with the pituitary gland can result in problems regulating the thyroid gland. The endocrine system in the body works very closely together so if something is wrong with one part of the system, problems can develop in others.
- Overmedicating an underactive thyroid: This is simply an overdose of thyroid hormone.
- Tumors on the ovaries or testes.
There are a number of symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism. The problem is that many of the most common symptoms associated with the condition are also quite common in other conditions, which may lead doctors to misdiagnose the problem. Those symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Being overly sensitive to heat
- Irregular periods
- Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- Goiter (enlarged area at the base of the neck)
- Increased appetite
- Increased sweating or clammy skin
- Hair loss
- Protruding eyes
- Hand tremors
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid heart beat
- Breast development in men
Testing for a hyperthyroidism is as simple as drawing some blood. A doctor can run a thyroid panel which will measure the levels of thyroid hormones. If a person does have hyperthyroidism, typically his or her hormone levels:
- will be low in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH)
- will be high in T3 and free T4
However doctors are discovering that even if a person tests within a "normal" range, that the range is so broad that there could still be a problem. It's important to note that not all doctors are familiar with thyroid problems or with running the tests for them. This leads many people to be repeatedly misdiagnosed or disregarded by their doctor altogether.
Also, if the doctor does run the thyroid test, don't accept the answer "the results were normal." The normal range for thyroid hormones is very broad and is as follows;
- T4 = 5.6-13.7 ug/dl (mcg/dl)
- FT4 = 0.8-1.5 ng/dl
- T3= 87-180 ng/dl
- FT3 = 230-420 pg/d;
- TSH = 0.4-4.5 mIU/L (mU/L)
Because these ranges are so broad, a problem can still exist even if a person is within the "normal" range. Because of this, some endocrinologists will treat a person who is on the high end of normal.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism is usually quite simple. Sometimes simple medications will do the trick. There are several medications available by prescription that will decrease the amount of T4 and T3 that the thyroid produces. Like all medications, they can have some side effects that the doctor should discuss with the patient.
Another treatment option is radioactive iodine. Radioactive iodine is absorbed by the abnormal cells in the thyroid that are over-producing the hormones. This will eventually cause the cells to die and for the thyroid to return to normal, although the person could also end up with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. It is used in about 70 percent of cases and is considered safe, as records have not shown and increase in the incidence of cancer from the radiation.
Surgery is also an option though it is usually a last resort as there are inherent risks associated with any surgical procedure.
Hyperthyroidism is a treatable condition, but if it is ignored it can go on to cause other serious problems such as heart problems of infertility. For those who suspect they have a thyroid problem, they should see their doctor immediately, insist on being tested and don't necessarily accept "normal" results as being normal.