The thyroid gland plays a vital role in your body’s ability to function. It regulates all sort of hormones, some of which control your metabolism, your digestion, your muscle control and even the development of your brain.
While most of us only worry about hypothyroidism, as it can lead to weight gain and a sluggish metabolism, its counterpart, hyperthyroidism, is just as much a threat to your health and your body. In fact, any issue with the thyroid is one you need to take seriously.
Let’s take a minute to learn about hyperthyroidism, and see if you or someone you love might be suffering from it, now.
What is Hyperthyroidism?
There are two types of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. With hypothyroidism, the thyroid is underactive, failing to produce the right amount of hormones your body needs. With hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, the thyroid does the opposite. It makes too many hormones, overloading your body with more than it can handle. Hyperthyroidism is often referring to as an “overactive” thyroid.
Causes of Hyperthyroidism
So what causes hyperthyroidism? Well, there can be a number of reasons. Underlying conditions, like Graves’ disease or Plummer’s disease, are common hyperthyroidism causes, while some people simply have an inflamed thyroid gland causing the issue.
Usually, the reason for hyperthyroidism is one of the following:
- Nodules – Sometimes, the thyroid forms adenomas, or benign nodules on its surface. Often, these will produce hormones of their own, causing an excess in the bloodstream.
- Graves’ disease – This is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, and it’s due to an underlying autoimmune issue. The disease forces the body to produce antibodies, which then attack the thyroid like a foreign invader. This leads to excessive hormone production and, of course, hyperthyroidism.
- Inflamed thyroid – An inflamed thyroid, sometimes called thyroiditis, can often cause hyperthyroidism, too. The inflammation allows stored hormones to leak out of the thyroid and into the bloodstream, overloading the body in the process. Thyroiditis is often painful for the sufferer – particularly in the region where the thyroid is located.
Goiters can also cause hyperthyroidism in a similar way that nodules and adenomas can. Not all goiters cause excess hormone production though; it simply depends on the person.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism run the gamut, and most of them are pretty undesirable. Hyperthyroidism can affect your weight, your nervous system, your sleep patterns and more, and it’s definitely something you want to get under control – and fast – if you suffer from it.
Just a few of the signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat or rapid heartbeat (more than 100 beats a minute)
- Tremors, particularly in the hands, fingers and feet
- Unexplained weight loss, especially when your appetite remains the same or you increase the amount of food you consume
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Dry skin
- Mood swings and irritability
- Unexplained sweating
- Muscle weakness
- Fatigue and lethargy
- More frequent bowel movements
- Increase appetite
- Sensitivity to heat
- Thinning hair and skin
- Trouble breathing, even when at rest
There are a few hyperthyroidism symptoms in women that don’t appear in men, like lighter periods, skipped periods and other menstrual cycle changes.
Older adults with hyperthyroidism may have none of these low thyroid symptoms at all. Often, medications like beta blockers (which are common in aging adults) can mask the signs, making hyperthyroidism difficult to spot without proper blood testing.
Fortunately, if you think you may suffer from hyperthyroidism, it’s a very easy condition to control and treat. A number of medications can help slow hormone production, as well as treat the symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism and its underlying causes.
Some of the most commonly used hyperthyroid treatment options include:
- Anti-thyroid medication –The most common treatment for hyperthyroidism, anti-thyroid medication stops your thyroid from over-producing hormones. It typically takes about 2 to 3 months to take full affect though, and treatment continues for a year. This often cures the condition entirely. It’s important to note though: Anti-thyroid medications have been linked to liver damage and even death in some people.
- Beta blockers – These medications, which are traditionally used to lower blood pressure, can help reduce symptoms in those with a hyperactive thyroid. In particular, they can slow heart rates and prevent palpitations and pounding.
- Radioactive iodine – Radioactive iodine pills can also be an effective treatment of hyperthyroidism. These cause the thyroid gland to shrink, reducing symptoms in bout 3 to 6 months. Sometimes, this can cause hypothyroidism, slowing the thyroid to much that it begins to under-produce hormones. This can lead to weight gain and other hypothyroidism symptoms.
- Surgery – Sometimes, a person may need their entire thyroid removed surgically, especially if they are unable to complete one of the other treatments. When this occurs, the person must take synthetic hormone pills daily to make up from the missing gland.
The right treatment depends on the severity of the hyperthyroidism, as well as any underlying conditions, allergies and other health issues the person may have.
Hyperthyroidism in Pregnancy
Hyperthyroidism and pregnancy can be a dangerous combination. For one, if left uncontrolled, it can lead to spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, preterm labor, pre-eclampsia and low birth weight, and for the mother, it can also cause increased pregnancy symptoms, like increased morning sickness and vomiting.
To make matters worse, common treatments like radioactive iodine cannot be used while pregnant, as it can endanger the baby and lead to birth defects. Though anti-thyroid medicines are often used in these cases, it is possible for them to impact the baby. Most doctors feel that leaving the condition untreated is more dangerous than the risk the medication presents.
In cases where hyperthyroidism is severe, pregnant women may need to undergo surgery in order to safely control the condition. Surgery also comes with a risk, however, sometimes causing premature labor or even miscarriage.
Usually, hyperthyroidism in a mother leads to an increased risk of hyperthyroidism in the child. For women suffering from Graves’ disease, about 1 percent of all babies are born with hyperthyroidism themselves.
Mothers-to-be should be sure to talk to their doctors about their thyroid early on in the pregnancy. If either hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism exists, these conditions will need to be treated, controlled and monitored carefully throughout all three trimesters.