News that you have abnormal thyroid levels is never good. Your thyroid is one of the most important glands in your body, regulating metabolism, body weight, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, to name a few. There are any number of underlying causes for abnormal thyroid levels, but whenever they occur, this results in distinct physical signs and symptoms. The end result of these abnormal levels is that you will either experience hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
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What Are "Abnormal" Thyroid Levels?
The thyroid produces a hormone comprised of thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The brain's pituitary gland also has a role in maintaining normal thyroid levels, too. Whenever the pituitary gland notes that thyroid levels are low, it sends its own thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) to jolt the thyroid gland into action. Thyroid levels are abnormal whenever there is too much or too little thyroid hormone present in the blood. Someone with a low-functioning thyroid will show low levels of T4 and elevated TSH levels. If the thyroid is overproducing, low levels of TSH and high levels of T3 (and sometimes T4) are noted. Thyroid levels can be obtained through a simple blood test. Additional blood tests may indicate what's causing abnormal thyroid levels by determining if there are certain antibodies in the blood. (REF 1)
Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism
Too much thyroid in the blood that leads to hyperthyroidism causes distinct symptoms. Someone with hyperthyroidism may experiences heat intolerance, nervousness, tremors in the hands, heart palpitations, difficulty sleeping, weight loss, excessive sweating, and warm skin. In hyperthyroidism that results from a condition with an autoimmune component, there may be ocular involvement as the eyes are pushed forward due to pressure behind the orbitals. (REF 3)
What Can Cause Hyperthyroidism
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves' Disease, in which the autoimmune system produces antibodies that attack the thyroid gland and cause it to overproduce thyroid hormone. Hyperthyroidism can also be the result of the presence of thyroid nodules or thyroiditis, which is usually a transient form of hyperthyroidism. (REF 3)
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
If abnormal thyroid levels are low enough to cause hypothyroidism, this can lead to symptoms such as weakness, fatigue and excessive sleeping. Someone with hypothyroidism may also present with dry, thinning hair and a pallid skin tone. Cold intolerance is also noted, as is constipation and in irregular menstrual cycles in women. Depression and a low sex drive may also occur. The classic sign of hypothyroidism is sudden, unexplained weight gain and difficulty losing weight. (REF 2)
What Can Cause Hypothyroidism?
Two things cause decreased thyroid levels that result in hypothyroidism. The most common is a disorder called Hashimoto's Disease, in which the body's immune system attacks the thyroid gland and renders it unable to function. The second cause is a result of medical treatment; when all or part of the thyroid is surgically removed due to nodules or thyroid cancer. Hypothyroidism is also common in patients with hyperthyroidism after receiving radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment to treat their condition. (REF 2)
Addressing Abnormal Thyroid Levels
Treating abnormal thyroid levels means addressing the cause of the disorder that causes them. Patients with hypothyroidism must take synthetic or natural thyroid replacements for the rest of their lives. Hyperthyroidism is a bit trickier; patients with conditions such as Graves' Disease can take anti-thyroid medication which may resolve hyperthyroidism for long periods of time and in some cases, permanently. RAI treatment is another option for patients with Graves and other forms hyperthyroidism; however, this treatment, which ablates the thyroid gland, almost always results in hypothyroidism, giving patients a whole new set of symptoms to treat.
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