Physical Symptoms of Hypothyroidism After Radiation

Hypothyroidism is a condition of the thyroid gland that is located on the front part of the neck, right below the larynx area. This gland is one of the body's endocrine glands and secretes a hormone that affects metabolism, the heart, digestion, reproduction and mental stability. When the thyroid gland is not producing enough of this hormone, the condition is known as hypothyroidism. Radiation treatments given for other unrelated conditions are known to cause subsequent hypothyroidism.

  1. Radiation Therapy

    • Radiation treatments are often used for treating cancer and for shrinking tumors. Radiation therapy is also referred to as X-ray therapy, irradiation and radiotherapy. Radiation therapy causes damage to the generic material of cancer cells, which stops them from further growth and division. The thyroid is at most risk when radiation is given to the neck or brain. Radioactive iodine is also often used to treat an overactive thyroid, called hyperthyroidism.

    Radiation Exposure

    • Exposure to radiation can happen in other, unplanned, ways. When the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident occurred in 1986, radioactive particles were released into the air over wide areas of Europe. The incidents of thyroid cancer since have reached at least 3,000 and the February 2002 United Nations report projected that 8,000 to 10,000 more individuals were likely to develop thyroid cancer by 2012. The thyroid absorbs iodine naturally and also readily absorbs radioactive iodine, which is present in radioactive particles released in this way.


    • Cancer survivors who have had radiation therapy are at a greater risk of developing hypothyroidism. The types of hypothyroidism typically seen after radiation treatments are primary, central and compensated hypothyroidism. Primary refers to damage sustained directly to the thyroid. Blood tests reveal high TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) levels, which often indicate abnormal thyroid function. Central hypothyroidism indicates that the pituitary gland is damaged. This gland interacts directly with the thyroid, stimulating it to produce the proper amount of hormone. Compensated hypothyroidism indicates that the pituitary gland is working extra hard to keep the thyroid functioning, and is an early sign of thyroid failure.


    • Radiation caused hypothyroidism may not display symptoms for years after exposure or symptoms may appear soon afterward. Some of the earliest symptoms of development of hypothyroidism are unexplained weight gain, depression, constipation and cold sensitivity. Skin begins to feel pale or dry, and fingernails and hair can become thin. Many individuals complain of joint or muscle pain. Increased blood flow during menstruation and overall fatigue are common. As the disease progresses and is untreated, the skin, hands, feet and face can display symptoms. Skin grows thicker and the hands face and feet can become swollen or puffy. Speech is more difficult and the voice can become hoarse. Sensitivity to smell or taste is diminished and eyebrows begin to thin.

    Other Radiation Effects

    • Radiation therapy can also cause thyroid nodules to grow several years after treatment. These nodules are painless and grow slowly, producing no symptoms. They can be felt by an experienced doctor during thyroid examination and detected during ultrasound or biopsy to the thyroid. Thyroid cancer can also occur after radiation therapy. There are no symptoms other than a lump which is slow growing and painless. Treatment for thyroid cancer includes surgery and medication.

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