An overactive thyroid gland, also known as hyperthyroidism, refers to the overproduction of thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland is located at the base of the neck, and is concerned with the secretion of some important hormones, like thyroxine (T-4) and triiodothyronine (T-3). These two hormones are responsible for regulating the rate of metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature.
So, an excessive amount of thyroid hormones can increase the rate of metabolism, which in turn can cause several health problems, such as irregular heartbeat, weight loss, and nervousness. The secretion of the thyroid hormones is regulated by another hormone, which is known as the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). This hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland, but its production is actually regulated by the hypothalamus.
Causes of Hyperthyroidism
High thyroid levels, especially a high level of the hormone thyroxine is more commonly associated with an autoimmune condition, known as Grave's disease. In this disease, the immune system produces antibodies that attack the cells of the thyroid gland. Factors like high level of stress, smoking, radiation to the neck, certain medications, and pathogens like viruses may increase the risk of developing this autoimmune condition.
Graves' disease is a hereditary disease, and is more common in women. Sometimes, hyperthyroidism can also be caused by adenomas that develop in the thyroid gland. Such adenomas can start producing thyroxine independently, i.e., without responding to the level of TSH. Apart from these, thyroiditis, excessive intake iodine and thyroid hormones or medications are some other possible causes of hyperthyroidism.
Overactive Thyroid Signs and Symptoms in Women
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism in women are more or less similar to the symptoms observed in men. However, women can experience a few additional symptoms related to menstruation. In general, the symptoms of this condition can mimic the symptoms of many other health conditions. The following are some of the important signs and symptoms that can be produced by this condition:
- Increased appetite
- Sudden weight loss, despite same or increased appetite
- Rapid heartbeat or tachycardia
- Joint pain
- Excessive sweating
- Hot flashes
- Anxiety and irritability
- Tremors, especially in the hands and fingers
- Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia
- Frequent bowel movements
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Poor concentration
- Menstrual irregularities (light and less frequent menstrual periods)
In addition to these symptoms, elderly women can experience chest pain, breathing difficulty, and muscle weakness. If hyperthyroidism is caused by Graves' disease, then it can affect the eyes. Eye involvement is usually rare, but if it occurs, one can observe a few additional signs and symptoms, such as a protruding eyeball, swelling, redness of the eye, excessive tearing, double vision, and an increased sensitivity to light. This condition is usually termed as Graves' ophthalmopathy.
Overactive Thyroid Treatment
Hyperthyroidism is usually detected by evaluating the medical history of the patient, and with the help of a physical examination. Blood tests to measure the level of TSH and thyroxine are also carried out. Apart from these, diagnostic tests like a radioactive iodine uptake test and a thyroid scan can be performed.
The main treatment options for this condition are, anti-thyroid medications, radioactive iodine, and thyroid surgery or thyroidectomy. For controlling symptoms like rapid heartbeat and palpitations, beta blockers are used. Surgery is usually carried out when the patient cannot tolerate anti-thyroid medications, and does not want to go for the radioactive iodine therapy.
In thyroidectomy, most of the thyroid gland is removed, and so, the patient has to rely on synthetic thyroid hormones for rest of his or her life. If Graves' ophthalmopathy develops, then artificial tears and lubricating gels can be required to treat this condition. In severe cases, corticosteroids and surgical procedures, like eye muscle surgery and orbital decompression surgery can be required to treat Graves' ophthalmopathy.
If left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to some serious complications, like heart problems, eye problems, brittle bones, and thyrotoxic crisis. Thyrotoxic crisis can be a life-threatening condition, if not treated immediately. This condition is characterized by the intensification of the hyperthyroidism symptoms. Such complications can however, be avoided with prompt treatment. Therefore, symptoms like, sudden weight loss, rapid and irregular heartbeat, hot flashes, and menstrual irregularities should never be neglected. Instead, such symptoms should be evaluated as soon as possible with the help of a health care provider, in order to rule out the possibility of hyperthyroidism and other medical conditions.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.