Graves' Disease

What is Graves’ Disease?

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid gland. It’s the most commonly diagnosed form of hyperthyroidism – a condition characterized by an abnormally high level of thyroid hormone in the body. Graves’ disease is more common in women, and usually develops between the ages of 20 and 40.

The exact cause of Graves’ disease is unknown. However, it results from an attack by a person’s own immune system. Normally, the immune system produces antibodies to protect us against infection and disease. In Graves’ disease, the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies that act on the thyroid and cause it to produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism).

Symptoms of Graves’ Disease

Common symptoms of Graves’ disease may include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Heat intolerance
  • Increased sweating
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Enlarged thyroid gland in the neck (goiter)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A fine tremor in hands or fingers
  • Fatigue
  • Erectile dysfunction in men
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Bulging eyes (exophthalmos) or double vision
  • Muscle weakness

Diagnosis of Graves’ Disease

A doctor will review a person’s medical history, family history, and symptoms. Then, they will do one or more of the following tests to diagnose Graves’ disease:

  • Blood tests – to measure the levels of thyroid hormone
  • MRI, ultrasound, or thyroid scan – to check for an enlarged thyroid
  • Thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI) – to check for antibodies that are attacking the thyroid
  • Radioactive iodine uptake test – to determine how much hormone the thyroid is releasing.

Treatment of Graves’ Disease

Treatment of Graves’ disease will depend on the individual and may include:

  • Antithyroid medication – to reduce the amount of thyroid hormone the thyroid produces
  • Beta-blockers – to reduce the symptoms caused by excess thyroid hormone
  • Radioactive iodine therapy – to reduce hormone levels and shrink the thyroid
  • Surgery – to remove all or part of the thyroid

Complications of Graves’ Disease

Complications of Graves’ disease can include:

  • Eye problems – if left untreated, Graves’ disease can cause inflammation and swelling of the eye muscles (ophthalmopathy)
  • Pregnancy complications – hyperthyroidism can cause miscarriage, preterm delivery, and other complications
  • Heart problems – hyperthyroidism can cause an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy)