Q: What is thyroid disease?
Dr. Donnica: There are many different specific types of thyroid diseases,
benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous). There are also many different
specific disorders in each category. The most common types of thyroid disease
are non-cancerous thyroid conditions: hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
and hypothyroidism (under active thyroid).
Thyroid disease in general affects nearly 13 million Americans. Women are
affected five to eight times more frequently than men. The good news about
thyroid disease is that reliable diagnostic and treatment options are readily
available. When properly treated, patients with thyroid disorders can lead normal,
active lives. The bad news about thyroid disease is that nearly half of affected
adults remain undiagnosed despite having fairly typical symptoms. If untreated,
thyroid disorders may cause cardiovascular problems, infertility, osteoporosis,
and damage to major organs.
Hyperthyroidism affects approximately
1 of every 100 American adults. In patients with hyperthyroidism, the thyroid
produces abnormally high levels of thyroid hormones. This causes the body to
burn energy faster than normal and speed up many vital functions. In most cases,
hyperthyroidism is due to a problem in the thyroid gland itself. The most common
causes for this include Graves' disease and a benign thyroid tumor that secretes
increased and uncontrolled amounts of thyroid hormones. Short-term hyperthyroidism
may also result from certain types of thyroid inflammation or viral infections.
Very rarely, hyperthyroidism may be caused by overproduction of thyroid-stimulating
hormone (TSH) by the pituitary gland or by production of excess thyroid hormone
from a source outside the thyroid, such as from an ovarian tumor.
Graves' disease is the most common
cause of hyperthyroidism. This is the form of thyroid disease that affected
Gail Devers, as well as former first lady Barbara Bush. It is an autoimmune
disorder, which disrupts the thyroid's local regulation of hormone secretion.
It usually affects young women between the ages of 20 and 40 (although about
12% of patients are men).