Hyperthyroidism is a condition that affects the thyroid gland and impacts the production of hormones. The disease affects nearly 10 percent of Americans¹ over the age of 12 and can lead to severe health complications if it is not properly treated.
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The thyroid gland is located in the neck and is responsible for manufacturing thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones affect nearly every function of your body, playing a crucial role in regulating your metabolism and how your body uses energy.
Hyperthyroidism, also referred to as an overactive thyroid, is a condition that occurs when your thyroid gland produces more thyroid hormones than your body needs. That can result in an overly fast metabolism, causing several unpleasant symptoms.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism often resemble other medical conditions or medical problems, making the condition challenging to diagnose. Sometimes, hyperthyroidism is misdiagnosed as depression or dementia, especially in older adults.
Older adults with hyperthyroidism may also have different symptoms than younger adults, including a loss of appetite or withdrawal from people. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism vary significantly from one patient to the next, but you may want to speak to your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing any of these common symptoms:
Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Fatigue and trouble sleeping
Muscle weakness or hand tremors
Increased perspiration or low tolerance to heat
Increased frequency of bowel movements
Enlargement of the thyroid gland, known as a goiter
Frequent bowel movements
Bulging eyeballs (exophthalmos)
Several factors can cause hyperthyroidism, including:
Graves' disease (most common)
Thyroiditis, or inflammation of the thyroid
Noncancerous tumors of the thyroid or pituitary gland
Overactive thyroid nodules
While hyperthyroidism is more common in women and people older than 60, it can affect people of all ages. In addition, you are more likely to develop hyperthyroidism if you have a family history of thyroid disease or have other health conditions such as anemia, diabetes, or a hormone disorder.
There is an increased risk factor for people whose diet contains large amounts of foods with high iodine levels, use medications that contain iodine, use tobacco products, or were pregnant within the past six months.
One of the most severe complications of hyperthyroidism is problems with the heart. Hyperthyroidism may cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related issues. Additionally, hyperthyroidism increases your risk of congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart can't circulate enough blood to meet your body's needs.
Untreated hyperthyroidism can also lead to weak, brittle bones and a condition known as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that most often affects bones in the hips, backbone, and wrist, weakening them to a point where they break easily. Bone strength is partially dependent on the amount of calcium and other minerals they contain. High levels of thyroid hormones can interfere with your body's ability to absorb calcium and minerals into the bones.
People with Graves' disease often develop eye problems, such as sensitivity to light, blurred or double vision, and red, swollen, or bulging eyes. Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to severe eye problems, including loss of vision.
Hyperthyroidism also places you at risk of thyrotoxic crisis². Sometimes referred to as thyroid storm, this condition is caused by an excessive release of thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. Thyrotoxic crisis is a life-threatening condition characterized by your symptoms suddenly intensifying and leading to a fever, rapid pulse, and even delirium.
Diagnosing a patient with hyperthyroidism begins with your doctor examining your medical history and performing a physical exam. However, since hyperthyroidism produces symptoms similar to those of other diseases, a diagnosis can't be made on a physical exam alone.
Typically, your doctor will order blood tests that measure the levels of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream. They may also order imaging tests, such as a thyroid scan or thyroid ultrasound, to confirm the diagnosis and find the root cause. In some cases, your doctor may suggest making an appointment with a thyroid specialist (endocrinologist).
The long-term outlook for patients with hyperthyroidism depends mainly on its cause. Some cases of hyperthyroidism go away without treatment, while others, like Graves' disease, tend to worsen over time without treatment. Graves' disease can have life-threatening complications that affect your quality of life, though early diagnosis and treatment of symptoms can improve the long-term outlook for all cases of hyperthyroidism.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism and treatment plan will be unique for each patient, with the goal of treatment being to restore normal thyroid hormone levels. Since the condition varies so greatly, many factors are considered when determining the best course of action for a patient.
First, your medical team will identify your type of hyperthyroidism, how the condition has progressed to date and expectations for the disease in the future. Additionally, the doctor will assess the patient's age and medical history and evaluate their overall health and ability to tolerate specific medications, procedures, or therapies.
There are several possible treatment options, including:
Radioactive iodine is taken orally and absorbed by your thyroid gland, causing it to shrink. This therapy is best for patients over 21 years old.
Anti-thyroid medications (propylthiouracil or methimazole) prevent your thyroid from producing excess amounts of hormones.
Beta-blockers don't affect thyroid hormone levels but can help control symptoms, such as tremors and rapid heart rate.
Thyroidectomy is a surgical procedure where your doctor removes part of the thyroid gland. This is typically reserved for those with large thyroid glands that press on nearby structures.
The most common types of hyperthyroidism are:
Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid gland and is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. Graves' disease occurs when the immune system releases lots of antibodies (blood proteins) and falsely signals the thyroid gland to overproduce thyroid hormones.
Toxic nodular goiter
Toxic nodular goiter is a condition where the thyroid gland becomes enlarged, and one or more nodules produce too much thyroid hormone.
Thyroiditis is a swelling or inflammation of the thyroid gland that can cause either unusually high or low levels of thyroid hormones in the blood.
Additionally, hyperthyroidism can occur if a person takes too many thyroid hormone tablets. In rare cases, a pituitary gland issue, such as a benign tumor, may also cause an overproduction of the thyroid-stimulating hormone, leading to hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is a serious health condition that can lead to severe complications. It's essential to see your doctor if you experience unexplained weight loss, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, swelling at the base of your throat, or other symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism.
Since many of the signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism are also related to other medical conditions, it's vital to completely and thoroughly describe the changes and symptoms you are experiencing. If you've been treated for thyroid disease or you are currently being treated, schedule regular checkups with your doctor so they can monitor your condition.
There are several types of hyperthyroidism, and various factors cause the condition. Hyperthyroidism is most common among women, and the leading cause is a condition known as Graves' disease. In most cases, hyperthyroidism can be controlled, but it can lead to severe health consequences if left untreated.