What to do when your thyroid's doing too much.
It sounds like a simple problem: Your body is producing too much thyroid hormone. But there's a pill for that, right? Well, not always.
Hyperthyroidism is a complex condition that can be tricky to manage. It causes your metabolism to accelerate dramatically, affecting everything from body weight to the speed of your heart. If left untreated or uncontrolled, an overactive thyroid gland can put your health at serious risk — leading to heart problems, osteoporosis, vision loss and more.
Fortunately, there are doctors who specialize in thyroid disease. They're called endocrinologists, and they treat thyroid problems every day. Our board-certified endocrinologist will work closely with you to help restore your natural hormone balance. She'll meet with you to perform a thorough evaluation — including a physical exam, blood work and other tests as needed. It's her job to figure out why your thyroid is overactive and develop a treatment plan that works for you.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism
Hyperthyroidism often imitates other health problems. Adding to the confusion, older adults often have no symptoms at all. Or, they may experience only a few warning signs like rapid pulse, fatigue and sensitivity to heat.
The symptoms of an overactive thyroid may include:
- Anxiety, irritability and mood swings
- Unexplained weight loss
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Fatigue, muscle weakness and/or tremors
- Excessive sweating
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased appetite
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter); swollen neck
- More frequent bowel movements or other digestive changes
- Menstrual changes
- Thinning of the skin
- Vision problems or eye irritation
- Fine, brittle hair
If left untreated...
The funny thing is, the early symptoms of hyperthyroidism may actually seem appealing. After all, your metabolism speeds up, you have more energy and you're losing weight without even trying. But don't be fooled. Over time, all those extra thyroid hormones flooding your body can start to wear down your systems, causing you to feel tired and leading to dangerous health problems. The human body just isn't built to operate at full throttle 24/7.
If left untreated, an overactive thyroid can cause serious complications, including:
- Heart problems — Dangerously high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (which can lead to stroke) and congestive heart failure
- Osteoporosis — Bone loss, inability to absorb calcium, weak and brittle bones, fractures
- Muscle weakness — Wasting away of the muscles, especially in the thighs, hips, upper arms and shoulders; less often in the face, throat, eyes and respiratory tract
- Weight loss — Inability to process enough calories and retain weight; increased metabolism and appetite can eventually give way to weakness and fatigue as the body breaks down
- Emotional and mental health problems — Heightened alertness can lead to anxiety, nervousness, irritability, tremors, inability to relax and sleep
- Digestive issues — More frequent bowel movements can cause dehydration and nutrient malabsorption
- Eye problems — Graves' disease (bulging eyes), eye swelling and redness, light sensitivity, blurry or double vision and even vision loss
- Reproductive issues — Irregular or missed periods, fertility problems, increased chances of preeclampsia (high blood pressure), miscarriage, premature birth and lower birth weight
- Thyrotoxic crisis — Also known as thyroid storm; a sudden worsening of symptoms, including a fever, profuse sweating, fast pulse, vomiting, diarrhea, extreme weakness and, in some cases, delirium and even seizures — call 911
Rest assured, there are many options to bring your thyroid under control, and most people respond well to treatment. Your endocrinologist can work with you to determine the best course of treatment, taking into account your physical condition, personal preferences and other factors. Options for treatment include:
- Antithyroid medications — The simplest treatment, these medications work by causing your thyroid to make less thyroid hormone. Treatment can last at least a year or longer but may not lead to a permanent cure.
- Beta blockers — Although these medications do not affect your thyroid levels, they're often prescribed to help you feel better — reducing tremors, rapid pulse and nervousness — until other treatments can kick in.
- Radioiodine therapy — This is a safe, generally well-tolerated, one-time treatment for overactive thyroid. After it's swallowed, the radioiodine targets your thyroid gland, causing it to shrink and slow its hormone production. Other parts of the body are unaffected. However, most people taking radioiodine eventually develop hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), which is easier to treat and causes fewer health problems.
- Surgery — In rare cases, your endocrinologist may recommend surgery to remove all or a portion of your thyroid gland. This may be an option for those who can't take antithyroid medications, can't/don't want to have radioiodine therapy or have a large goiter. Note: If your thyroid is removed, you'll need to take thyroid medication for the rest of your life.
If you have hyperthyroidism, you should also watch the foods you eat. Iodine-rich or iodine-fortified foods can worsen your condition if you eat too much. Seafood contains the most iodine, but iodized salt, nonfat milk, Greek yogurt, eggs, oysters, enriched bread and liver are also high on the list. Talk to your doctor about foods to avoid and healthy, low-iodine alternatives.
Take the next step
If you've recently been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, or if you've already tried medication and it's just not working, now is the time to seek a higher level of care. Make an appointment with Crossroad's board certified endocrinologist.