What Is Hyperthyroidism?

Hyperthyroidism is the clinical term for the over-production of thyroid hormone, often as a result of an auto-immune disorder which attacks the thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland is responsible for the production of thyroid hormone, one of several substances responsible for the regulation of the body's metabolism. Hyperthyroidism is a disorder in which your thyroid hormone, for one reason or another, produces too much of its hormone, resulting in an over-secretion that can affect numerous processes. Most cases of hyperthyroidism are not threatening, but can impair proper functioning as a result of the extreme fatigue associated with the condition.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' disease, also known as Graves-Basedow disease, an autoimmune disorder that is generally hereditary. Its usual onset is in middle age, but exceptions are not uncommon. An autoimmune disorder is one in which the body's own immune system recognizes parts of the body incorrectly as foreign, and attacks them. The hyperactivity of the thyroid associated with the disease is the result of this attack, which stimulates the gland into over-production of its hormone. The symptoms of Graves-Basedow can be treated, namely with the same anti-thyroid medications used to treat hyperthyroidism at large or with the removal of the thyroid gland entirely, but the condition is incurable. Other conditions that like Graves' disease, produce an inflammation of the thyroid may also cause hyperthyroidism. These would include bacterial or viral infection of the gland.

There are other somewhat less common causes of hyperthyroidism, including the presence of thyroid nodules, unusual growths of the gland. Generally these nodules are benign (noncancerous), but a small portion may be malignant, or cancerous, and are generally operable because of their location. Not all cases of thyroid nodules (in fact, a very small percentage) do cause hyperthyroidism, but they are one of its leading causes.

Hyperthyroidism is generally recognized by extreme fatigue and sensitivity to heat, accompanied by poor appetite and potentially severe weight loss. Diarrhea or soft stools may result from the excess hormone's interruption of the normal digestion. The interruption of the menstrual cycle in women is another symptom, though this does not occur in all patients. Hyperthyroidism is a chronic condition, meaning it works over the course of many years, and symptoms will become more severe as the duration of the disease goes on. Treatment, while effective, is not permanent, and patients will frequently be dependent upon anti-thyroid medication for life.

The most effective tests for hyperthyroidism are blood tests, which indicate to the physician the level of thyroid hormone and thyroid-stimulating hormone in the bloodstream. Autoimmune thyroiditis may be identified with an antibody test.

Treatment options are extensive, and vary depending upon the cause of the condition. Thyroiditis is often treatable with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as over-the-counter NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Radioactive iodine treatment is one option, but it is not preferable to pregnant women or women who may soon become pregnant, and may result in the converse condition, hypothyroidism. Surgical treatment, which may include the removal of part or all of the thyroid, may run the latter risk as well. Anti-thyroid medications are one of the most common treatments, as they run a lower risk of the development of hypothyroidism and simply attempt to limit the activity of the thyroid gland.

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