Graves Disease

Although it can technically affect anyone, Graves’ disease is known as a young woman’s ailment, inasmuch as its favored prey are women under 40. The disease is an immune disorder that causes your body to create excess thyroid hormones.

What happens in a body with Graves’ disease is that a unique antibody is produced that overrides the function of the hormone that normally controls the pituitary gland. The typical result is an overproduction of thyroid hormones, a condition known as hyperthyroidism.

Just as your thyroid has its hand in a number of your body’s systems, so too are the symptoms of Graves’ disease wide-ranging. They may include:

  • A fine tremor of your hands or fingers
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Change in menstrual cycles
  • Heat sensitivity and an increase in perspiration or warm, moist skin
  • Weight loss, despite normal eating habits
  • Enlargement of your thyroid gland
  • Reduced libido
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Heart palpitations
  • Thick, red skin usually on the shins or tops of the feet
  • Bulging eyes

This last has its own name – Graves’ ophthalmopathy – and is present in around 30 percent of Graves’ disease patients. In addition to bulging eyes – or exophthalmos – it can have the following affects on your eyes:

  • Gritty sensation in the eyes
  • Pressure or pain in the eyes
  • Puffy or retracted eyelids
  • Reddened or inflamed eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Double vision
  • Vision loss

You should schedule an appointment with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, but visit an emergency room immediately for any heart-related signs and symptoms, such as a rapid or irregular heartbeat, if you develop vision loss, or if you are pregnant.

Graves’ disease holds particular peril for pregnant women. The possible complications include miscarriage, pre-term birth, fetal thyroid dysfunction, poor fetal growth, and maternal heart failure.

After giving you a physical exam, your doctor will likely order a blood test which will provide an indication of how high or low certain hormone indicators are, as well as the level of that unique Graves’ disease antibody. Your doctor may also schedule you for a battery of imaging tests to determine the size of your thyroid, as well as giving you a small amount of radioactive iodine in order to track the rate at which your thyroid gland takes up iodine. The amount of radioactive iodine taken up by the thyroid gland will help your doctor determine if Graves' disease is the cause of the hyperthyroidism.

The crux of the treatment for Graves’ disease is to inhibit the production of thyroid hormones and to block the effect of the hormones on the body. So-called “anti-thyroid” meds such propylthiouracil and methimazole, which interfere with the thyroid's use of iodine to produce hormones, may be prescribed.

A gradual process of radio-iodine therapy is another option. In this scenario, you will take radioactive iodine orally and, over several weeks to several months, the radioactivity shrinks your thyroid.

The more rapid, and drastic approach, is surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid.