Hyperthyroidism - Treatments

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How is hyperthyroidism treated?

The options for treating hyperthyroidism include:

  • Treating the symptoms

  • Antithyroid drugs

  • Radioactive iodine

  • Surgery treating symptoms

Treating the symptoms

There are medications available to immediately treat the symptoms caused by excessive thyroid hormones, such as a rapid heart rate. One of the main classes of drugs used to treat these symptoms is the beta-blockers [for example, propranolol (Inderal), atenolol (Tenormin), metoprolol (Lopressor)]. These medications counteract the effect of thyroid hormone to increase metabolism, but they do not alter the levels of thyroid hormones in the blood. A doctor determines which patients to treat based on a number of variables including the underlying cause of hyperthyroidism, the age of the patient, the size of the thyroid gland, and the presence of coexisting medical illnesses.

Antithyroid Drugs

There are two main antithyroid drugs available for use in the United States, methimazole (Tapazole) and propylthiouracil ( PTU). These drugs accumulate in the thyroid tissue and block production of thyroid hormones. PTU also blocks the conversion of T4 hormone to the more metabolically active T3 hormone. The major risk of these medications is occasional suppression of production of white blood cells by the bone marrow (agranulocytosis). (White cells are needed to fight infection.) It is impossible to tell if and when this side effect is going to occur, so regular determination of white blood cells in the blood are not useful.

It is important for patients to know that if they develop a fever, a sore throat, or any signs of infection while taking methimazole or propylthiouracil, they should see a doctor immediately. While a concern, the actual risk of developing agranulocytosis is less than 1%. In general, patients should be seen by the doctor at monthly intervals while taking antithyroid medication. The dose is adjusted to maintain the patient in as close to a normal thyroid state as possible (euthyroid). Once the dosing is stable, patients can be seen at three month intervals if long-term therapy is planned.

Usually, long-term antithyroid therapy is only used for patients with Graves' disease, since this disease may actually go into remission under treatment without requiring treatment with thyroid radiation or surgery. If treated from one to two years, the data shows remission rates of 40%-70%. When the disease is in remission, the gland is no longer overactive, and antithyroid medication is not needed.

Recent studies also have shown that adding a pill of thyroid hormone to the antithyroid medication actually results in higher remission rates. The rationale for this may be that by providing an external source for thyroid hormone, higher doses of antithyroid medications can be given, which may suppress the overactive immune system in persons with Graves' disease. This type of therapy remains controversial, however. When long-term therapy is withdrawn, patients should continue to be seen by the doctor every three months for the first year, since a relapse of Graves' disease is most likely in this time period. If a patient does relapse, antithyroid drug therapy can be restarted, or radioactive iodine or surgery may be considered.

Radioactive Iodine

Radioactive iodine is given orally (either by pill or liquid) on a one-time basis to ablate a hyperactive gland. The iodine given for ablative treatment is different from the iodine used in a scan. (For treatment, the isotope iodine 131 is used, while for a routine scan, iodine 123 is used.) Radioactive iodine is given after a routine iodine scan, and uptake of the iodine is determined to confirm hyperthyroidism. The radioactive iodine is picked up by the active cells in the thyroid and destroys them. Since iodine is only picked up by thyroid cells, the destruction is local, and there are no widespread side effects with this therapy.

Radioactive iodine ablation has been safely used for over 50 years, and the only major reasons for not using it are pregnancy and breast-feeding. This form of therapy is the treatment of choice for recurring Graves' disease, patients with severe cardiac involvement, those with multinodular goiter or toxic adenomas, and patients who cannot tolerate antithyroid drugs. Radioactive iodine must be used with caution in patients with Graves' related eye disease since recent studies have shown that the eye disease may worsen after therapy. If a woman chooses to become pregnant after ablation, it is recommended she wait 8-12 months after treatment before conceiving.

In general, more than 80% of patients are cured with a single dose of radioactive iodine. It takes between 8 to 12 weeks for the thyroid to become normal after therapy. Permanent hypothyroidism is the major complication of this form of treatment. While a temporary hypothyroid state may be seen up to six months after treatment with radioactive iodine, if it persists longer than six months, thyroid replacement therapy (with T4 or T3) usually is begun.

Surgery

Surgery to partially remove the thyroid gland (partial thyroidectomy) was once a common form of treatment for hyperthyroidism. The goal is to remove the thyroid tissue that was producing the excessive thyroid hormone. However, if too much tissue is removed, an inadequate production of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) may result. In this case, thyroid replacement therapy is begun. The major complication of surgery is disruption of the surrounding tissue, including the nerves supplying the vocal cords and the four tiny glands in the neck that regulate calcium levels in the body (the parathyroid glands). Accidental removal of these glands may result in low calcium levels and require calcium replacement therapy.

With the introduction of radioactive iodine therapy and antithyroid drugs, surgery for hyperthyroidism is not as common as it used to be. Surgery is appropriate for:

  • pregnant patients and children who have major adverse reactions to antithyroid medications.

  • patients with very large thyroid glands and in those who have symptoms stemming from compression of tissues adjacent to the thyroid, such as difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, and shortness of breath.
Return to Hyperthyroidism

See what others are saying

Comment from: skrause, 35-44 Female (Patient) Published: November 14

I was diagnosed as hyperthyroid a few years ago and have been regulated for about 1 1/2 years but in August went hyper again. My TSH was .131. My medications were changed (lowered) and I just received another test and the TSH is now .016 so I am lowering my medications but going more hyper. I will see the doctor today to find out why, since he said my thyroid was basically dead because it had been inactive for so long. I am not sure why the levels are changing. One thing to note hyperthyroid does not always mean weight loss. I have gained weight both times I have gone hyper.

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Comment from: Raquelap, Female (Patient) Published: November 19

I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism about a month ago and I was prescribed levothyroxine to help regulate my hormones. All that seems to be happening is my symptoms are getting worse. All I do is sleep! All I wanna do is sleep. At first all I wanted to do was eat but now the thought of eating makes me feel sick. I get weird rashes on my arms and the back my hands are starting to bruise. I get really hot and start to sweat. My neck is swollen right where my thyroids are. I'm extremely irritable. I let my doctor know what was going on so now all I have to do is wait to hear back from him. I hope things will get better because I feel really bad. :-(

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