Graves' Disease

Graves' disease is a disorder of the immune system resulting in the overproduction of hormones by the thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism. Like most other immune system irregularities, its cause is unknown, though research to date has shown that heredity, age, gender and stress level are risk factors for the condition. Graves' disease is the most frequent cause of hyperthyroidism and is most common in women between 20 and 40 years of age. Graves' disease is usually treatable and may even resolve on its own over time. Left untreated, however, a severe case can become life-threatening.

Symptoms of Graves' Disease

Graves' disease causes many symptoms similar to those found in patients with other types of hyperthyroidism, but is the only form of hyperthyroidism to affect the eyes. About half of the patients with Graves' disease have eye symptoms, including: bulging eyes, dry eyes, pressure, pain, redness or puffiness of the eyes, excessive tearing, light sensitivity and double vision. Since the thyroid gland helps to regulate multiple organs and muscles, the other symptoms of Graves' disease are many and varied, affecting numerous parts of the body. Symptoms of Graves' disease may include:

  • Trouble sleeping, fatigue, anxiety, irritability
  • Sweating, rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Hand tremors, muscle weakness
  • Sensitivity to heat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
  • Eye problems, known as Graves' ophthalmopathy
  • Thick, red skin on the shins or feet, known as Graves' dermopathy

Graves' disease may also cause changes in menstrual cycles, erectile dysfunction, and reduced libido.

Diagnosis of Graves' Disease

Graves' disease is diagnosed through a physical examination and a blood test to determine the patient's serum level of thyroid hormones. Imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI scan may also be performed. Since the thyroid gland requires iodine to produce its hormones, the physician may also order a radioactive iodine uptake test.

Treatment of Graves' Disease

Treatment for this disease depends on the severity of the disease and the patient's overall health. Treatment may include beta blockers, anti-thyroid medication, and radioactive iodine. In severe cases, if other methods of treatment are unsuccessful, surgery may be performed to remove all or part of the thyroid.

Risks of Graves' Disease

If left untreated, Graves' disease can result in a condition known as a thyrotoxic storm or thyrotoxicosis, a life-threatening emergency. During a thyrotoxic storm, the patient spikes an extremely high fever, has severe tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) and presents with extreme agitation, shaking, sweating and confusion. While a rare occurrence, a thyrotoxic storm may cause pulmonary edema, heart failure and death.

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