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Thyroid Disease

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). 

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