Thyroid problems are fairly common, especially among women. The problem can either be an underactive thyroid or an overactive one. The latter case is generally referred to as hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland is more active than normal.
In hyperthyroidism, there is overproduction of the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The excess hormones cause the metabolism of the body to speed up. Hyperthyroidism has several manifestations, the most common of which is called thyrotoxicosis.
Thyrotoxicosis may occur at any age, although it is most frequent between the ages 10 and 50. Also, women are about three times more likely than men to develop it. Predisposition to the condition often runs in families. A disturbance in the immune system of the body is believed to be its basic cause. More specifically, thyrotoxicosis is believed to be an autoimmune disease – that is, the thyroid is seen by the person’s immune system as foreign tissue and attacks it, causing the thyroid to produce too much hormone.
Symptoms of thyrotoxicosis may develop gradually or suddenly. Usual ones include rapid heartbeat, tiredness, difficult breathing, intolerance for heat, excessive thirst, diarrhea, frequent urination, fine tremor, and muscle weakness. Because of the characteristic speeding up of the body’s metabolism in this condition, the affected individual’s appetite may increase, and yet she/he may lose weight. Also in this condition, enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter) is usually obvious, though not always.
Overproduction of thyroid hormones causes all body tissues to work beyond their normal rate; this is as if they are functioning in an incessant emergency. For this reason, a person suffering from thyrotoxicosis should be under the care of a physician.
Excess activity of the thyroid gland may be suppressed with the use of certain drugs. These drugs, however, must be used only under the close supervision of a physician, especially since these drugs are known to produce many different side effects.
Radioiodine (also known as Iodine-131) is being used successfully in many clinics. Here, the iodine, which emits beta rays, is absorbed and retained by the thyroid gland, destroying many active cells in the process. This, however, is not without any complications. In about a little more than a third of cases, the gland eventually fails to produce as much of the hormone as the body needs. This results to the regression of thyrotoxicosis into the condition known as hypothyroidism.
For cases in which other treatments are not adequate, the physician may suggest and go for surgical removal of part of the hyperactive thyroid gland. It must be mentioned here that untreated cases of thyrotoxicosis may lead to death, resulting from problems in nutrition or from heart failure.
1. “Thyrotoxicosis” by Dr. John L. Floyd, on eMedicine – http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/383062-overview
2. “Hyperthyroidism: Overactivity of the Thyroid Gland” by Dr. James Norman, on endocrineweb – http://www.endocrineweb.com/hyper1.html