Ben Crenshaw was born in Austin, Texas, thirty-four years ago. His parents were both professional athletes and it wasn't a particular surprise when he turned out to be an athlete himself. But Ben Crenshaw isn't your usual athlete. He is a professional golfer and perhaps the best there is. His career was sailing along with a win in the Master's Tournament in 1984, and with his youth, energy, and natural ability he looked unbeatable. Then early in 1985 his career began to come apart.
In December I telephoned Ben to find out what had happened. "I've always been a procrastinator about my health," he told me. "I've never been one to see doctors often. So when my game began to deteriorate during 1985 I attributed it to stress and tension in my life."
Even though he wasn't on a diet Ben began to lose weight, and rapidly lost 20 pounds from his usual and best weight of 170. He tried to eat more to keep himself built up but kept on losing weight anyway. He noticed some tiredness in his legs, and weakness in his shoulders led to a loss of 25 yards of distance off the tees. His hands began to shake and with increasing inner tension he began to over-shoot on the putting greens. His eyes became reddened and irritated though he had no blurring or double vision. He began to sweat more and he felt "hot all the time." Ultimately, of course his scores dropped, which for a professional athlete meant that his family income dropped considerably as well.
"My father implored me to see someone about my health," Ben told me. "Being a former athlete himself he realized how much my physical condition meant to me. He felt that it was more than just the stresses of life that were affecting me and my game."
Ben's father proved to be right.
"At the end of 1985 I finally saw a physician," Ben recalled. "After he asked me a few questions and examined me, he told me that I had several symptoms as well as some physical evidence which suggested a thyroid problem. He recommended some thyroid tests to see if he was right."
Ben's 24-hour radioactive iodine uptake was 90%: his thyroid had taken up 90% of the iodine he had been give a day earlier. In contrast, a normal persons' thyroid might take up 10 to 20% of the test dose of iodine. Blood tests for thyroid hormone levels were also high.
"When I sat down with the doctor after the tests he told me that I did indeed have an overactive thyroid and could be helped a lot by proper treatment." Ben went on to recall his conversation with his physician. "My doctor suggested three options for me, immediate treatment with radioactive iodine, a thyroid operation, or some pills to slow down my thyroid and make me feel better. We chose pills because they would work to control the problem quickly, and rapid improvement would enable me to get my game back faster and stay with the PGA Tour. He started me on propranolol and propylthiouracil and I felt better almost at once."
Ben felt better quickly because the propranolol blocked the action of his thyroid hormones on his body. Even though he still had high hormone levels in his blood for a while, he stopped having the jitteriness, the nervousness, and the fast pulse which those levels had been causing in his system.
Gradually the propylthiouracil lowered Ben's thyroid hormone levels, and for the next six months he noted steady improvement in his sense of well-being, his inner tensions, and his game. Blood tests were taken periodically to follow both thyroid hormone levels and the white blood cell count to be sure he was not having an allergic reaction from the propylthiouracil and to adjust the dosages of his medicines as he improved.
In early May, Ben Crenshaw's doctor suggested that they retest the thyroid gland's function and find out if he had experienced a remission. By "remission" he meant that an overactive thyroid gland may quiet down on its own sometimes and make further treatment unnecessary. But Ben learned that his thyroid was still very overactive and accordingly, radioactive iodine or surgery were suggested to him as the two best options for permanent control of the condition.
"I chose radioactive iodine," he recalled, "and within a month of swallowing the dose of iodine I felt better. Then in the third week of June, just one month after my treatment, I had my first really good tournament in a year in the US Open in South Hampton, New York. Within nine months my distance returned, my nerves calmed down, I regain my touch on the putting greens, and overcame my tendency to overshoot."
Ben Crenshaw's game has returned. His winnings rose from $52,000 in 1985 (the year of his hyperthyroidism ) to $380,000 in 1986. His strength is back, and with it his sense of well-being. He feels good. Of course he continues a program of periodic checkups with his physician to follow the effects of his radioiodine treatment and to look for evidence of thyroid deficiency. He now takes supplemental thyroid hormone tablets as do most people who have had radioiodine treatment, and his dose is right according to tests carried out in November of 1986.
"My doctor says that I need a checkup from time to time," he told me, "and I'm following his advice to be sure that my own thyroid doesn't slow down some more and give me the opposite condition of hypothyroidism ." Fatigue, sluggishness, muscle cramps, and a lack of energy would be just as bad for a professional golfer as Ben's overactive thyroid of two years ago.
As I close my interview with Ben Crenshaw in early December, I asked him what this illness had taught him and what message he might give to others who are experiencing the same sort of problem.
"That's something I've thought about," he said, "because I'm really impressed to find out how many other people there are who have thyroid trouble. At almost every tournament I go to now I meet three or four people who come up to me and say they've had thyroid trouble, too."
"I guess I would say first that I feel that I have never suffered as much in my life as when I had this problem and didn't know what was wrong with me. I didn't know I could feel that bad," he said, "and I don't want to feel that way again. I would urge people to keep contact with somebody who is qualified to take care of your health so that you don't go through an illness like that for so long without it being recognized."
Ben Crenshaw's experience is a common one simply because the symptoms of an overactive thyroid come on gradually and often mimic simple nervous tension. And since hyperthyroidism often begins during a period of life stress, there are usually reasons for the affected person to feel nervous, jittery, and jumpy. As with Ben Crenshaw, many patients accept the weight loss and shakes as part of some sort of nervous condition.
Thanks to Ben Crenshaw for taking the time to tell us about his thyroid experience. I know I speak on behalf of the members of The Thyroid Foundation of America when I say we are glad he is back in good health and has learned to importance of a regular health check-up. We hope this article about Ben will encourage other professional and amateur athletes who notice a change in their physical skills to ask their doctors for advice or perhaps to have a health check-up.
Ben Crenshaw's remarkable career has continued with a spectacular win at the 1995 Master's Tournament. More recently, he was the Captain of the 1999 Ryder Cup team that won the Cup for the United States.