Graves' Disease: Symptoms & Treatment

Overview

Graves’ disease, also known as diffuse toxic goiter, is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland. It can cause the overproduction of thyroid hormones – hyperthyroidism. Many conditions can lead to hyperthyroidism, while Graves’ disease is the most common cause. Thyroid hormones affect many different body systems so symptoms associated with Graves’ disease may be wide-ranging.

According to statistics, about 20%-80% of people with Graves’ disease develop eye problems. Graves’ disease is more common in women than in men. It usually occurs in women at the age of 30 to 60, although it can affect people of any ages.

Causes & Risk Factors

Graves’ disease is caused by the malfunction of part of the body’s immune system. In Graves’ disease, the body produces an antibody to attack a part of cells in the thyroid gland – for reasons that we don’t know currently.

Some risk factors may include:

  • Female gender
  • Have a family history
  • Have other autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, pernicious anemia, or lupus
  • Have emotional stress or trauma
  • Pregnancy
  • Have a history of certain infections
  • Smoking

Symptoms

Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. Some symptoms of Graves’ disease are the same as some symptoms of hyperthyroidism caused by other reasons. But there are some symptoms that can only occur in Graves’ disease. Common symptoms of Graves’ disease include:

  • Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy: only in Graves’ disease)
  • The shins and upper feet become thick and red (Graves’ dermopathy: only in Graves’ disease)
  • Larger thyroid that causes swelling in the neck
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and increased nervousness
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Tiredness or muscle weakness
  • Hard to sleep
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss without dieting
  • Change in menstrual cycles
  • More frequent bowel movements

Diagnosis

To diagnose Graves’ disease, your doctor will give you a physical exam to check your symptoms and the following tests:

  • Thyroid function tests. These tests check your levels of the main thyroid hormone (T4) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Generally, people with Graves’ disease have a high level of T4 and a low level of TSH. Sometimes these tests can also be used to look for antibodies of Graves’ disease.
  • Radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) test. This test can show how much iodine your thyroid gland is using. The thyroid gland needs iodine to make thyroid hormone. People with Graves’ disease have a higher level of iodine.
  • Ultrasound. This can show whether the thyroid gland is enlarged or not. It is most useful for people who cannot take RAIU, such as pregnant women.
  • Imaging tests. These tests can be used to diagnose Graves’ ophthalmopathy, including CT and MRI scans.

Treatment

The treatment goals for Graves’ disease are to lower the amount of thyroid hormone and inhibit the production of thyroid hormones to block this kind of hormones from affecting the body. Doctors may recommend the following treatment options.

Anti-thyroid medications

FDA has approved two medications for Graves’ disease: propylthiouracil and methimazole. These two medications can prevent the thyroid gland from using iodine to make too much thyroid hormone. They are usually given to patients as a supplemental treatment before or after radioiodine therapy.

Radioiodine therapy

This therapy uses radioiodine to destroy overactive thyroid cells. However, this may cause hypothyroidism and you may have to take thyroid hormone for the rest of your life.

Beta blockers

These medications cannot inhibit the production of thyroid hormones, but they can block them from affecting your body. They can relieve some symptoms, such as anxiety, faster heart rate, excessive perspiration and muscle weakness. Beta blockers include:

Surgery

Surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland (thyroidectomy or subtotal thyroidectomy) can treat Graves’ disease. But this can cause hypothyroidism which is the same as radioiodine therapy. You may have to take thyroid hormone for the rest of your life.

Complications

Graves’ disease can lead to some complications, including:

  • Irregular menstrual period
  • Miscarriage, preterm birth, fetal thyroid dysfunction, poor fetal growth, maternal heart failure and preeclampsia
  • Heart disorders
  • Thyroid storm, which is a rare, but life-threatening complication, also known as accelerated hyperthyroidism or thyrotoxic crisis
  • Osteoporosis

Home Remedies

Following tips can relieve the symptoms of Graves’ disease efficiently.

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Have regular exercise
  • Reduce your stress and learn to relax
  • Use cool compresses on your eyes

Please consult your doctors before taking any treatment.


Keywords: Graves’ disease; the thyroid gland; hyperthyroidism.

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* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.