standard-title Thyroid Diseases (Hyperthyroidism – Overactive Thyroid)

Thyroid Diseases (Hyperthyroidism – Overactive Thyroid)

Thyroid Disease (Hyperthyroidism)


About the Condition

Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland produces too much of the hormone thyroxine. Hyperthyroidism can accelerate your body’s metabolism significantly, causing sudden weight loss, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, sweating, and nervousness or irritability.

Several treatment options are available if you have hyperthyroidism. Doctors use anti-thyroid medications and radioactive iodine to slow the production of thyroid hormones. Sometimes, treatment of hyperthyroidism involves surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid gland. Although hyperthyroidism can be serious if you ignore it, most people respond well once hyperthyroidism is diagnosed and treated.

 

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Signs and Symptoms

Hyperthyroidism can mimic other health problems, which may make it difficult for your doctor to diagnose. It can also cause a wide variety of signs and symptoms, including:

  • Sudden weight loss, even when your appetite and the amount and type of food you eat remain the same or even increase
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) — commonly more than 100 beats a minute — irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or pounding of your heart (palpitations)
  • Increased appetite
  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Tremor — usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
  • Sweating
  • Changes in menstrual patterns
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
  • An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), which may appear as a swelling at the base of your neck
  • Fatigue, muscle weakness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skin thinning
  • Fine, brittle hair

Older adults are more likely to have either no signs or symptoms or subtle ones, such as an increased heart rate, heat intolerance and a tendency to become tired during ordinary activities. Medications called beta blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure and other conditions, can mask many of the signs of hyperthyroidism.

 

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Risk Factors

Hyperthyroidism, particularly Graves’ disease, tends to run in families and is more common in women than in men. If another member of your family has a thyroid condition, talk with your doctor about what this may mean for your health and whether he or she has any recommendations for monitoring your thyroid function.

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Diagnostic Process

Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed using:

  • Medical history and physical exam. During the exam your doctor may try to detect a slight tremor in your fingers when they’re extended, overactive reflexes, eye changes and warm, moist skin. Your doctor will also examine your thyroid gland as you swallow.
  • Blood tests. A diagnosis can be confirmed with blood tests that measure the levels of thyroxine and TSH in your blood. High levels of thyroxine and low or nonexistent amounts of TSH indicate an overactive thyroid. The amount of TSH is important because it’s the hormone that signals your thyroid gland to produce more thyroxine. These tests are particularly necessary for older adults, who may not have classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

If blood tests indicate hyperthyroidism, your doctor may recommend one of the following tests to help determine why your thyroid is overactive:

  • Radioactive iodine uptake test. For this test, you take a small, oral dose of radioactive iodine (radioiodine). Over time, the iodine collects in your thyroid gland because your thyroid uses iodine to manufacture hormones. You’ll be checked after two, six or 24 hours — and sometimes after all three time periods — to determine how much iodine your thyroid gland has absorbed.

    A high uptake of radioiodine indicates your thyroid gland is producing too much thyroxine. The most likely cause is either Graves’ disease or hyperfunctioning nodules. If you have hyperthyroidism and your radioiodine uptake is low, you may have thyroiditis.

    Be sure to tell your doctor if you have had a recent X-ray or a computerized tomography scan in which you had contrast material was injected. The results of your radioiodine test may be influenced by these procedures.

    Knowing what’s causing your hyperthyroidism can help your doctor plan the appropriate treatment. A radioactive iodine uptake test isn’t uncomfortable, but it does expose you to a small amount of radiation.

  • Thyroid scan. During this test, you’ll have a radioactive isotope injected into the vein on the inside of your elbow or sometimes into a vein in your hand. You then lie on a table with your head stretched backward while a special camera produces an image of your thyroid on a computer screen.

    The time needed for the procedure may vary, depending on how long it takes the isotope to reach your thyroid gland. You may have some neck discomfort with this test, and you’ll be exposed to a small amount of radiation.

    Sometimes you may have a thyroid scan as part of a radioactive iodine uptake test. In that case, orally administered radioactive iodine is used to image your thyroid gland.

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Treatment Options

Several treatments for hyperthyroidism exist. The best approach for you depends on your age, physical condition and the severity of your disorder:

  • Radioactive iodine. Taken by mouth, radioactive iodine is absorbed by your thyroid gland, where it causes the gland to shrink and symptoms to subside, usually within three to six months. Because this treatment causes thyroid activity to slow considerably, causing the thyroid gland to be underactive (hypothyroidism), you may eventually need to take medication every day to replace thyroxine. Used for more than 60 years to treat hyperthyroidism, radioactive iodine has been shown to be generally safe.
  • Anti-thyroid medications. These medications gradually reduce symptoms of hyperthyroidism by preventing your thyroid gland from producing excess amounts of hormones. They include propylthiouracil and methimazole (Tapazole). Symptoms usually begin to improve in six to 12 weeks, but treatment with anti-thyroid medications typically continues at least a year and often longer. For some people, this clears up the problem permanently, but other people may experience a relapse. Both drugs can cause serious liver damage, sometimes leading to death. Because propylthiouracil has caused far more cases of liver damage, it generally should be used only when you can’t tolerate methimazole. A small number of people who are allergic to these drugs may develop skin rashes, hives, fever or joint pain. They also can make you more susceptible to infection.
  • Beta blockers. These drugs are commonly used to treat high blood pressure. They won’t reduce your thyroid levels, but they can reduce a rapid heart rate and help prevent palpitations. For that reason, your doctor may prescribe them to help you feel better until your thyroid levels are closer to normal. Side effects may include fatigue, headache, upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea or dizziness.
  • Surgery (thyroidectomy). If you’re pregnant or otherwise can’t tolerate anti-thyroid drugs and don’t want to or can’t have radioactive iodine therapy, you may be a candidate for thyroid surgery, although this is an option in only a few cases.

 

 

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