Hyperthyroidism and Graves' Disease

Hyperthyroidism simply means that the thyroid gland is overworking and producing too much thyroid hormone into the bloodstream. In turn, the oversecretion of thyroid hormones leads to overactivity of the body's metabolism. Whatever the cause of your hypothyroidism, you are likely to experience a variety of symptoms. These include:

  • Racing heart
  • Increased perspiration
  • Nervousness, anxiety and shakiness
  • Irritability
  • Increased perspiration
  • Sensitivity to heat
  • Weight loss despite a good appetite
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Weak muscles, especially in the upper arms and thighs
  • Shaky hands
  • Fast heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased bowel movements
  • Sleeping difficulty
  • Eye sensitivity to light

Graves' disease, a condition that requires definitive treatment, is a form of overactive thyroid disease—a common cause of hyperthyroidism. Characterized as an autoimmune disorder, Graves' disease occurs when the body's immune system attacks the thyroid by mistake. Most people with Graves' disease have a relatively large thyroid gland and exhibit symptoms identical to those of hyperthyroidism, such as heart racing, excessive sweating, feeling anxious and shaky, and weight loss despite a good appetite.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A doctor can order blood tests to determine if you have high levels of thyroid hormone in your blood. If hyperthyroidism is confirmed, to pinpoint a definitive diagnosis a doctor may:

  • Order additional blood tests to look for signs of thyroid disease.
  • Opt for a special kind of thyroid imaging procedure commonly referred to as a "thyroid uptake and scan" that uses a radioactive substance to create an image of the thyroid, as it is functioning. A thyroid scan can show the size, shape and location of the thyroid gland. It can also find areas of the thyroid that are overactive or underactive.

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are readily addressed by a number of different treatments depending on the cause of hyperthyroidism. The goal of treatment is to restore the thyroid gland to normal function, producing appropriate levels of thyroid hormone.

The underlying autoimmunity that causes Graves' disease cannot be cured. In other words, if your immune system is programmed to attack your thyroid, it usually does not stop. Surgery and radioactive iodine are considered "definitive" treatments for Graves' disease because they eliminate the thyroid gland. Several medications can stop the production of excessive thyroid hormone. They are effective, but in most cases they are used only as a temporary measure.