Thyroid Disease After Early Thymus Removal

The Risk Goes Up

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If you had your thymus gland removed as a child, you could have an increased risk of developing autoimmune thyroid disease as well as other health problems later in life, according to a 2018 study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

In autoimmune disease, your own immune system starts to confuse healthy tissues in your body as a threat, as if they were a virus or bacteria. It then starts attacking and destroying those tissues.

When the tissue it's attacking is your thyroid gland, that can lead to dysfunction of the gland and a serious health problem for you.

What Is the Thymus Gland?

The thymus gland looks like two little horns sitting right above your heart, high in your chest. It's an important part of your immune system.

The thymus gland's main job is to create something called T lymphocytes, which are commonly referred to as T-cells. T-cells are white blood cells that protect you from pathogens that have infected your cells (such as when you have an infectious illness, like the cold or flu.) T-cells also attack cancer cells.

From the time you're born until about puberty, your thymus is fairly large. After that, it starts to shrink—a process that continues for the rest of your life.

Why Is the Thymus Gland Removed?

Usually, when someone's thymus gland is removed, it has nothing to do with the health or function of the thymus itself. Instead, it has to do with where the thymus is.

Because the thymus is large in children, it can be in the way when a child needs heart surgery, so the doctor sometimes removes it in order to access the heart.

Thyroid Disease Research

In the study mentioned above, researchers looked at more than 5,600 people who'd had their thymus surgically removed before they were five years old, all of them in connection with surgery for congenital heart diseases.

They had two control groups: one contained nearly 2,300 people who'd had heart surgery as children but hadn't had their thymus removed; the other was made up of about 56,000 people who had never had heart surgery.

Regarding thyroid disease, researchers found that the people who didn't have a thymus gland were more likely to have thyroid disease than people in either of the control groups, meaning that it looks as if the thymus removal is linked to development of the disease—not simply aging or having had heart disease and surgery early in life.

Risk was also slightly elevated for developing tumors in those who'd had the thymus gland removed. The number of infections was greater in this group, as well.

Researchers urge doctors to avoid the increased risk by not removing the thymus during heart surgery if at all possible, or by only removing part of the gland.

For cases in which the thymus has to be taken out, they suggest that doctors keep a close eye out for the health problems that may result from it.

Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Basics

The thyroid is often referred to as the master gland. It sits in the front of your throat and regulates all of the hormone levels in your body.

The two most common types of autoimmune thyroid disease are Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease. In Hashimoto's, the damage causes the gland to be underactive. In Grave's, it becomes overactive and may need to be removed. When the thyroid isn't working right or is gone altogether, you end up with hypothyroidism.

  • Fatigue and sluggishness
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Moodiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dry, course, or itchy skin
  • Dry, course, or thinning hair
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps, achiness, or pain
  • More frequent and heavier periods
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Frequent infections
  • Puffiness in the hands, feet, face, and/or around the eyes

Your doctor can perform blood tests for the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). When your thyroid function is impaired, your body produces more TSH in an attempt to boost function. Thus, when you have hypothyroidism, you have higher than normal levels of TSH.

The typical treatment for hypothyroidism is taking thyroid-hormone replacement medication. Common medications include:

  • Synthroid, Levoxyl, Unithroid, Tirosint (all brand names of the drug levothyroxine)
  • Cytomel (liothyronine)
  • Armour Thyroid, Nature-throid, WP Thyroid (all brand names of the drug called natural desiccated thyroid, or NDT)

A Word From Verywell

For those without a thymus gland, it's especially important to know the risks and symptoms of thyroid disease. If you suspect you're having thyroid-related symptoms, bring it to your doctor's attention right away so you can be tested and, if necessary, treated.

The good news is that thyroid disease can be well managed and doesn't have to have a major impact on your health or your life.

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