The thyroid gland, located in the front part of the neck, produces hormones that control metabolism. Metabolism involves how quickly your body is able to function and produce energy from food and nutrients. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland creates too much of the thyroid hormone or releases too much of the hormone because of inflammation or damage. Because the thyroid gland affects the body’s metabolism, a malfunctioning or injured thyroid gland will cause many health issues for a patient with hyperthyroidism.
Because hyperthyroidism involves the metabolism, many symptoms will involve things one may imagine would happen if bodily processes are forced into overdrive, or to speed up. Symptoms differ according to the severity of hyperthyroidism and the age of the patient. Furthermore, the condition begins slowly, hence early symptoms can easily be misinterpreted to be caused by stress and/or other health problems.
- Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep and inability sleeping for an entire night)
- Excessive sweating
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Weight loss
- Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
- Extreme fatigue
- Increased appetite
- Tremors (shaking and trembling of extremities – hands and fingers)
- Changes in bowel movements
- Hair loss
- A visibly enlarged thyroid gland (can be seen or felt physically)
A condition known as, “Graves disease”, is one of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism, causing more than 70% of all cases. Graves’ disease is believed to be genetic, or run in families, and it is most common among young women. Antibodies produced by the immune system work to fight foreign matter that cause diseases in the body, but if a patient has Graves’ disease, these antibodies will stimulate the thyroid and make it produce too much hormones, resulting in hyperthyroidism.
- Overactive thyroid nodules (“toxic multinodular goiter”) – There may be growths or lumps on the thyroid gland called nodules, and one or more of these nodules may begin to produce too much hormone. Hyperthyroidism caused by this is generally less severe than hyperthyroidism caused by Graves’ disease.
- Inflammation of the thyroid (“thyroiditis”) – A viral infection or issue with the immune system may cause the thyroid gland to become inflamed, which causes leaking of too much hormone into the bloodstream.
The symptoms described above will alert a doctor that a patient may have hyperthyroidism. Simple tests that will be initially performed will be checking for an enlarged thyroid gland and assessing the most noticeable symptoms (e.g. rapid pulse, shaking or tremor in fingers and hands, and moist skin).
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test
- Thyroid hormone tests for T3 and T4 hormones, two types of thyroid hormones
These blood tests will also be conducted during hyperthyroidism treatment to assess whether or not the treatment plan is effective.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism varies depending on the severity of the medical condition. There are three main treatments for hyperthyroidism.
- Medications: This route is usually the first treatment plan that doctors use. Medications used are antithyroid medications (to block the increased thyroid hormone production from the thyroid gland) and beta blockers (to treat hyperthyroidism symptoms such as shaking/tremors, heart palpitations, and anxiety). If this course of treatment does not result in signs of improvement, doctors may consider the following treatments.
- Surgery: This involves removing the entire thyroid gland, then starting the patient on “thyroid hormone replacement pills.”
- Radioactive iodine: This treatment is used most commonly in patients whose hyperthyroidism is caused by Graves’ disease and/or who are older than 50 years old. It involves patients swallowing a small pill that contains radioactive iodine what is absorbed by thyroid cells and subsequently destroys them.