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Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland produces and releases too much thyroid hormone. Also known as overactive thyroid gland, hyperthyroidism affects the way our body burns energy as well as our body processes.

What causes hyperthyroidism?

In most cases, hyperthyroidism is caused by the autoimmune disorder called Grave’s disease. In an autoimmune disorder, antibodies produced by the immune system attack the body’s tissues and organs. In Grave’s disease, the antibodies attack the thyroid gland, triggering the overproduction of the thyroid hormone.

The other causes of hyperthyroidism are hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules and thyroiditis. Hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules are lumps of cells in the thyroid gland that grow and become active, producing too much thyroid hormone. Thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid gland due to a viral infection or problems with the immune system. The inflamed thyroid gland produces extra thyroid hormone that finds its way into the bloodstream.

Who is at risk of developing hyperthyroidism?

Women and individuals who are in their 30s or 40s are at greater risk of developing hyperthyroidism. Studies show that Grave’s disease affects more women than men.

What are the symptoms of hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism develops slowly and has symptoms that are often associated with stress or other minor health problems. Among the early signs of hyperthyroidism are fatigue and insomnia. Because the disease speeds up metabolism, many patients feel warmer and are more sensitive to heat than most people. Other symptoms include a fast heart rate or heart palpitations, breathlessness, nervousness, tremors, the presence of a goiter (swelling at the base of the throat due to enlarged thyroid glands), changes in menstrual cycle, weight loss, muscle weakness, increased bowel movement and hair loss. Those who are afflicted with Grave’s disease may have bulging, dry, red or swollen eyes, which are common symptoms of the disease. Some may experience less severe symptoms such as eye discomfort, blurry or double vision, sensitivity to light and reduced eye movement that results in a staring gaze.

How is a hyperthyroidism diagnosed?

A doctor checking for hyperthyroidism will make a careful evaluation of the patient’s medical history and symptoms. He/She will conduct a physical examination, checking particularly for an enlarged thyroid gland, changes in eye movement and condition, heart palpitations or fast heart rate and tremors.

The doctor may require several tests to confirm an overactive thyroid. These may include blood tests to check the amount of thyroid hormone in the blood; a thyroid scan to check the condition of the entire thyroid; and a radioactive iodine uptake test that measures the thyroid’s ability to absorb iodine. A high uptake of iodine indicates too much thyroid hormone is being produced, hence the probable cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s disease or a hyperfunctioning thyroid nodule. A low uptake of iodine indicates thyroiditis as probable cause of the hypothyroidism.

How is a hyperthyroidism treated?

Treatment for hyperthyroidism will depend on the patient’s condition, age and the cause, type and severity of the disease. A doctor may recommend any of the following treatments:

  • Anti-thyroid drug therapy. Anti-thyroid drugs inhibit the thyroid from producing its hormones.
  • Radioactive iodine treatment. Radioiodine – a radioactive form of iodine – is administered by mouth to patients.
  • Surgery. Also called a thyroidectomy, thyroid surgery entails the removal of most or all of the affected thyroid gland.

What are the complications of hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism, when left untreated, can lead to several health conditions, including heart problems, such as heart rhythm disorder or congestive heart failure; thyrotoxic crisis, where hyperthyroidism symptoms worsen, resulting in fever, delirium and a rapid pulse; osteoporosis; and eye problems.

Treatment of hyperthyroidism may also lead to some complications. Anti-thyroid drugs can produce side effects such as fever, rash or itching. Some patients develop liver inflammation or white blood cell deficiency, in which case patients are advised to immediately stop taking the medication and consult a doctor.

Because they involve killing thyroid cells or removing part or all of the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine treatment and surgery often result in underactive thyroid glands. This condition may lead to weight gain and interferes with a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant.

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