What Is An Overactive Thyroid?

Your thyroid plays an important role in assisting with the healthy functioning of other systems in your body. This means that when your thyroid isn't working properly, other areas of your body will be affected.

For this reason, it's important to have thyroid conditions, such as an overactive thyroid, treated as quickly as possible. Doing so will not only help you overcome the negative symptoms that can result from hyperthyroidism but also the long-term health effects.

Here's what you should know about diagnosing and treating hyperthyroidism before scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider.

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What does your thyroid do?

Your thyroid is a small gland that is shaped like a butterfly and located at the base of your neck, just in front of your windpipe. It produces T4 and T3 hormones that play a role in helping other systems of your body work as they should, including your body temperature and heart rate.

When your thyroid makes too many of these hormones, also known as hyperthyroidism, it's common to experience symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, and for other systems in your body to be affected.

What causes an overactive thyroid?

An overactive thyroid can result from several causes, but the most common is Graves' disease. Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your thyroid gland, causing it to produce too much thyroid hormone.

Hyperthyroidism can also develop from thyroid nodules (that grow in the gland), thyroiditis, or from taking too much synthetic thyroid medication.

What are the symptoms of an overactive thyroid?

The symptoms of an overactive thyroid can vary from person to person. Common signs of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Nervousness 

  • Tremor 

  • Heart palpitations

  • Weight loss

  • Increased appetite

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle

  • Insomnia

  • Sweating and heat intolerance

  • Dry, brittle hair

  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

  • Muscle weakness

  • Bulging eyes (as a result of Graves' disease)

Who is at risk of developing an overactive thyroid?

While it's possible for anyone to develop an overactive thyroid, certain factors could increase your chances of developing hyperthyroidism. These include:

  • Being a woman

  • Being over the age of 60

  • Having a history of autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes

  • Having a family history of thyroid disease

  • Consuming too much iodine

  • Being pregnant or having been pregnant in the last 6 months

How is an overactive thyroid diagnosed?

Your primary care doctor or endocrinologist can determine if you have an overactive thyroid. This is done by performing a physical exam and reviewing your medical history. It's important to inform your healthcare provider of any symptoms you may be experiencing, even if you think they're unrelated to your thyroid.

If your doctor suspects that your thyroid could be the cause of your symptoms, they will likely use blood tests to check your T4, T3,  thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels, and thyroid antibodies.

A radioactive iodine uptake test is used to confirm the cause of your hyperthyroidism. This test would entail you consuming a small amount of radioactive iodine. Then, between 4-6 hours later, a technician will measure how much radioactive iodine your thyroid gland “takes up” by placing a gamma probe at the front of your neck.

If your thyroid has collected a large amount of iodine, you may have Graves’ disease or nodules that are producing too much thyroid hormone.

What's the treatment for an overactive thyroid?

If you are diagnosed with an overactive thyroid, there are a number of treatment options to help you manage your symptoms and bring your thyroid hormone levels back to a healthy range. Common treatment options for hyperthyroidism include:

  • Anti-thyroid medications: Propylthiouracil (PTU) and methimazole (Tapazole) are used to stop the production of new hormones, thereby gradually decreasing your thyroid hormone levels. While they are effective, they can take months to work.

  • Radioactive iodine treatment: This treatment entails taking radioactive iodine by mouth. The iodine enters the thyroid through the bloodstream and destroys it over time, usually between 3-6 months. Because you cannot control how much of the thyroid is destroyed by radioactive iodine, most doctors prefer to use only one dose.

  • Thyroid surgery: Removing your thyroid through surgery may be an option to treat your hyperthyroidism if you're not a good candidate for anti-thyroid medications or radioactive iodine treatments. This option is also important if you are suffering from compressive symptoms due to goiter, causing difficulty swallowing or breathing.

  • Beta-blockers:  Beta-blockers can help treat some symptoms of hyperthyroidism such as tremors and palpitations. 

Can an overactive thyroid be prevented?

Whether an overactive thyroid can be prevented or not depends on what is causing it. For instance, if your hyperthyroidism results from Graves' disease, there's no way to prevent an overproduction of thyroid hormones as it is caused by your own immune system attacking your thyroid.

On the other hand, if your hyperthyroidism is caused by taking too much synthetic thyroid hormone medication, having your thyroid levels checked through routine blood work and ensuring that you are taking the correct dosage may prevent it.

When to speak to a healthcare professional

If you experience one or more symptoms of an overactive thyroid, such as weight loss, increased appetite, or trouble sleeping, it's important to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider sooner rather than later.

Seeking professional medical care quickly can help you get your hyperthyroidism symptoms under control and bring your thyroid hormone levels to a healthy range.

Be sure to let your doctor know how long you've been experiencing symptoms, your family's medical history, and any medications you may be currently taking.

The lowdown

Your thyroid plays a significant role in how other systems of your body function. When your thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone, it's common to experience symptoms, such as nervousness, heart palpitations, and heat intolerance.

Making an appointment with your healthcare provider is the best way to get a diagnosis and formulate a personalized treatment plan to manage your hyperthyroidism symptoms.

With the help of anti-thyroid medications, radioactive iodine therapy, or surgery, you can treat your overactive thyroid symptoms and maintain healthy thyroid levels.

Have you considered clinical trials for Hyperthyroidism?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Hyperthyroidism, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64


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