Hyperthyroidism is characterized by an overproduction of the hormone used to regulate the metabolism, called thyroxine. Although hyperthyroidism is easily treatable once diagnosed, it can be tricky to recognize its presence, as symptoms often mimic those of other disorders.
Since the key aspect of hyperthyroidism is overproduction of thyroxine, its distinguishing symptom is accidental weight loss—because of the excess hormone, your metabolism speeds up abnormally. You use more energy (fat and carbohydrates) than normal, despite maintaining diet or activity levels. However, your appetite may increase as a result.
Similarly, you may have difficulty sleeping and experience tachycardia (rapid heartbeats), anxiety, light shaking, muscle weakness, or excessive perspiration. There may be some disruption of the gastrointestinal tract; women may experience a change in the normal schedule of their menstrual cycles. The skin may seem thin, while the hair loses strength. Finally, the thyroid gland itself may swell up, creating what’s known as a “goiter” or lump in the neck.
The exact cause depends upon the type of hyperthyroidism present. For example, Grave’s Disease causes hyperthyroidism as a result of the autoimmune system attacking the thyroid, instead of invading pathogens. Thyroiditis is an inflamed thyroid that, according to the Mayo Clinic, causes “excess thyroid hormone stored in the gland to leak into your bloodstream.”
Other types of hyperthyroidism have less clear causes, but ultimately a complex set of processes involving the brain, thyroid, and pituitary gland are disrupted, leading to hyperthyroidism.
In order to diagnose hyperthyroidism, your doctor will need to thoroughly examine your current and past medical history. Blood tests can measure the amount of certain thyroid hormones, particularly thyroxine and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is in charge of telling the thyroid to make more thyroxine. To determine the cause of a patient’s specific case of hyperthyroidism, a thyroid scan or radio iodine uptake test may be utilized.
The best course of treatment depends largely on the underlying cause of hyperthyroidism, as well as additional health characteristics of the patient. Oral doses of radioactive iodine can be used to shrink the thyroid, thus decreasing the amount of thyroxine produced. Unfortunately, this treatment can sometimes swing too far in the other direction—keeping the body from producing enough thyroxine.
Medications to suppress the amount of thyroxine are also an option, as is a thyroidectomy, or surgical removal of the thyroid. Symptomatic treatment may also be necessary.
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