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Thyroid Disease

Thyroid disease is a common condition that occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce the proper amount of hormones needed by the body. Thyroid hormones help regulate the body's heart rate, temperature and metabolism. A malfunctioning gland may be producing too much or too little of these hormones for a number of different reasons, such as an autoimmune disease, exposure to radiation, reaction to medication or pregnancy.

Hyperthyroidism is an overproduction of thyroid hormones, while hypothyroidism is an underproduction. Although these are different conditions, both can lead to enlargement of the thyroid gland, heart problems and other complications.

Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid gland, involves an excess of hormone production that can lead to weight loss, irregular heartbeat and irritability. The thyroid gland is located in the lower neck and wraps around the windpipe. Its hormones, primarily thyroxine and triiodothyronine, stimulate the metabolism of cells, control body temperature and regulate protein production.

An overactive thyroid gland can be caused by several different reasons which may include:

  • Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder in which antibodies cause the thyroid to produce too much thyroxine. This is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism and is much more common in women than in men.
  • Hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules occur when an adenoma, a benign lump in the thyroid, produces too much thyroxine and does not respond to hormone regulation signals from the brain.
  • Thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid gland which may cause a leakage of excess thyroid hormones. This often occurs after a viral illness or pregnancy.
  • Excessive iodine intake can lead to an excess of thyroid hormones since iodine is used to make these hormones.

Hyperthyroidism causes a wide range of symptoms that may be different for each patient, and may also be similar to other health conditions. Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Sudden weight loss
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Increased appetite
  • Trembling hands and fingers
  • Sweating
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Swollen thyroid gland
  • Fatigue

If you are experiencing signs of hyperthyroidism, your doctor may perform a series of diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your condition. These tests may include a radioactive iodine uptake test, thyroid scan and blood tests. Hyperthyroidism can be treated through a variety of different methods, depending on the cause and severity of the condition. Treating the symptoms through medication may be enough for some cases, while others may require more specific options. Hyperthyroidism treatments may include radioactive iodine, taken to shrink the thyroid gland; anti-thyroid medications, taken to reduce symptoms and stop the thyroid gland from producing excessive hormones; or surgery to remove most of the thyroid gland.

Hypothyroidism is a common condition that involves an underactive thyroid not producing enough hormones. This condition can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. The thyroid is the gland in the front of the neck that controls energy use and metabolic functions. Women over the age of 50 are at the highest risk for developing hypothyroidism.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary depending on the severity of the condition, but may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Puffy face
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Weight gain
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Painful joints

Although you may not experience any symptoms at first, they may gradually worsen as your metabolism is affected. Symptoms can take years to develop.

Hashimoto thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism and involves an antibody attack against the thyroid gland, which can affect its ability to produce hormones.

If you experience signs of hypothyroidism, or if you are at a higher risk for the condition, your doctor may perform blood tests to measure levels of thyroid hormones and TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). TSH causes the thyroid gland to make two hormones: triiodothyronine and thyroxine. Low levels of thyroxine and high levels of TSH may indicate hypothyroidism.

Thyroid hormone pills are the preferred method of treatment for controlling hypothyroidism. Symptoms usually improve within a week or two of beginning treatment. Hormone pills generally must be taken for the rest of a patient's life in order to remain effective. An increase in hormone production can negatively affect your body's reaction to medication, so it is important to see your doctor regularly while undergoing treatment for hypothyroidism. Most people experience effective results with no side effects or complications with hormone pills.

Click here for more information from The Hormone Foundation.

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