Radioactive iodine is widely used in the United States and North America to eliminate this form of hyperthyroidism. To know more about this form of treatment, read on…
The thyroid gland encased in the neck area is susceptible to wide range of problems, one of which is Graves’ disease. This condition is typically marked by overactive thyroid gland that causes excess production of hormones. This butterfly shaped gland is chiefly responsible for the creation of two hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Various biological processes in the body such as metabolism cannot be regulated if these thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) are not produced in adequate amounts. However as aforementioned, in Graves’ disease, normal thyroid levels take a backseat. This happens because of outlandish behavior of the immune system. The defense mechanism of our body that produces antibodies to kill harmful bacteria actually target the tissues of the thyroid gland. Unfortunately, the thyroid gland is not equipped to handle this invasion of the immune system. The outcome – the thyroid gland becomes enlarged, which leads to hyperthyroidism, a condition that causes the thyroid gland to produce hormones in excess. Muscle weakness, fatigue, irritability and sleeping problems are some of the most common Graves’ disease symptoms.
Using Radioactive Iodine for Graves’ Disease
Now, how to rectify the thyroid gland function so that it produces hormones in normal amounts? There are many ways to reduce overactivity of the thyroid gland, and one of those options involves usage of radioactive iodine (RAI). It is elaborated below:
Contrary to the belief, radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment is not new and its usage started long back in the 1940s. In fact in the United States, RAI is the most preferred choice of treatment for Graves’ disease, as it is found to be more effective than other medicines in curing this thyroid problem.
As the name suggests, RAI releases radiation in the form of gamma rays that have an amazing ability to infiltrate the desired tissue. The most commonly used radioactive iodine to treat this thyroid condition is sodium I-131 or sodium iodide I-131, which is available in capsule form. When the thyroid gland absorbs this RAI, its radiation that is emitted kills overactive thyroid cells. The RAI that is not used by the thyroid gland is eventually removed from the body through urine. The destruction of thyroid cells reduces the size of the thyroid gland, which leads to drop in blood thyroid hormone levels that were previously high.
With thyroid cells getting destroyed by radioactive iodine, one expects relief from hyperthyroidism symptoms. However, in the initial weeks of RAI treatment for Graves’ disease, blood thyroid levels actually rise, instead of declining. The damage done to the thyroid gland triggers excess secretion of the hormones, T3 and T4, into the bloodstream. The thyroid cells store the hormones and so when they are destroyed, both T3 and T4 are released into the blood that may aggravate hyperthyroidism. However, it is just a matter of few weeks before this phase of worsening of hyperthyroidism goes away completely.
The oral I-131 iodine capsule is just given once in the prescribed dosage and should not be taken on a daily basis. A point to note is that although RAI is effective to lower thyroid function, it does not mean that patient becomes free from Graves’ disease within a day or two. The medication will require at least 6 weeks to more than a year to destroy thyroid cells and cure hyperthyroidism.
The most frequently occurring side effect of RAI therapy is hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid hormones are produced in inadequate amounts. A large percentage of patients using this treatment are eventually diagnosed with less than normal thyroid levels. Is this a cause for concern? Absolutely not! Treating hypothyroidism is simple and all one has to do is take medications that contain synthetic thyroid hormones on a daily basis. It is indeed very difficult for the doctor to decide the dosage that gets rid of Graves’ disease and at the same time prevent the development of hypothyroidism. Taking a low strength radioactive iodine capsule has its own drawbacks. Firstly, it may take years to cure hyperthyroidism and secondly there might be no improvement in symptoms, several months after taking the dosage. Nausea and stomach upset are some other minor side effects of RAI therapy that do not require any treatment.
Of course, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers need to stay away from RAI for Graves’ disease because there is a high possibility that RAI may disable thyroid function of the baby in the womb. Also, people with minor to major eye problems are not candidates for RAI treatment. This is because there have been reports of eye diseases becoming worse with I-131 therapy. On the whole, this is a prescription medicine and so taking it on self prescription basis must be strictly avoided. Consultation with a qualified doctor is crucial prior to taking RAI therapy.