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How to Recognize and Treat Hyperthyroidism

The thyroid is a gland that produces hormones that control metabolism and regulate vital body functions such as body temperature, breathing, heart rate, and more. More than 12% of the US population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime and females are five to eight times more likely than males to have thyroid problems.

An overactive thyroid, also known as hyperthyroidism, is a condition where your thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine.

Are you at risk?

Gender plays a large factor in thyroid conditions. Women are more likely than men to develop thyroid conditions and 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder in her lifetime. The prevalence of thyroid disorders also increases with age.  Genetics play a factor as hyperthyroidism, particularly Graves’ disease (see below), tends to run in families.

Common symptoms

Hyperthyroidism is characterized by rapid or irregular heartbeats, excessive sweating, fatigue, and weight loss. Other symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety, irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Brittle or thinning hair
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • An enlarged thyroid gland at the base of your neck, also called a goiter

Graves’ Disease

Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. It is an autoimmune disorder that is genetic and estimated to impact approximately 1% of the population.

In people with Graves’ disease, the immune system produces an antibody that stimulates the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone. This is most common in women between the ages of 20 and 40 years, but can occur at any age in men or women. The thyroid gland enlarges (called a goiter) and makes excessive amounts of thyroid hormone, causing symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Other causes of hyperthyroidism

Your thyroid may sometimes become inflamed for unknown reasons, a condition called Thyroiditis. The inflammation can cause the stored thyroid hormones to leak into the bloodstream, leading to symptoms of hyperthyroidism. The condition is typically painless, although one rare type known as subacute granulomatous thyroiditis causes pain in the gland.

Hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules occur when one or more adenomas of the thyroid produce too much thyroxine. An adenoma is a portion of the gland that has walled itself off from the rest of the gland forming lumps which may lead to an enlargement of the thyroid. Not all adenomas produce excess thyroid hormone and doctors remain uncertain why this occurs.

What to ask your doctor

If you exhibit any of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism, contact your health care provider for further testing. Your doctor will test your blood for levels of thyroid hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Your doctor will also do a manual exam of your neck and in some cases recommend a scan of the thyroid area.

Come to your appointment prepared to answer and ask questions. Your doctor will want you to describe your symptoms, their severity and their duration. Additionally, your doctor may want to know if anything makes you feel better or worse and if you have a family history of thyroid conditions. Be sure to prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor. For hyperthyroidism you make want to ask the following questions:

  • What is likely causing my symptoms?
  • Are there other possible causes for my symptoms?
  • Do I need any tests?
  • Should I see a specialist?
  • Will my other health conditions create any complications?
  • Are there any treatment alternatives to the ones you’re recommending?

Treatment of hyperthyroidism

There is no single best treatment for hyperthyroidism. The treatment depends on the patient and multiple factors including family history, age, severity, and type of condition. Antithyroid drugs may be prescribed if your doctor determines that blocking the production of thyroid hormone is best. Another way to treat hyperthyroidism is to use radioactive iodine to damage or destroy the overactive thyroid cells. The radioactive iodine is administered via oral tablet and is typically given just once. Surgery is also an option to permanently cure hyperthyroidism by completely removing your thyroid gland. In all treatment options, beta blockers may be used by your doctor to treat the symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Beta blockers block the action of thyroid hormone on your body and typically make you feel better within hours to days, even though they do not change the high levels of thyroid hormone in your blood.

If you suspect you may have a thyroid disorder, contact a health care provider at Northwest Primary Care to learn more.