Graves’ disease is one of the most common of all thyroid problems. It is also the leading cause of hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland produces excessive hormones. Once the disorder has been correctly diagnosed, it is quite easy to treat. In some cases, Graves’ disease goes into remission or disappears completely after several months or years. Left untreated, however, it can lead to serious complications — even death. Although the symptoms can cause discomfort, Graves’ disease generally has no long-term adverse health consequences if the patient receives prompt and proper medical care.
What Causes Graves’ Disease? Hormones secreted by the thyroid gland control metabolism, or the speed at which the body converts food into energy. Metabolism is directly linked to the amount of hormones that circulate in the bloodstream. If, for some reason, the thyroid gland secretes an overabundance of these hormones, the body’s metabolism goes into high gear, producing the pounding heart, sweating, trembling, and weight loss typically experienced by hyperthyroid people.
Normally, the thyroid gets its production orders through another chemical called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), released by the pituitary gland in the brain. But in Graves’ disease, a malfunction in the body’s immune system releases abnormal antibodies that mimic TSH. Spurred by these false signals to produce, the thyroid’s hormone factories work overtime and exceed their normal quota.
Exactly why the immune system begins to produce these aberrant antibodies is unclear. Heredity and other characteristics seem to play a role in determining susceptibility. Studies show, for example, that if one identical twin contracts Graves’ disease, there is a 20% likelihood that the other twin will get it, too. Also, women are more likely than men to develop the disease. And smokers who develop Graves’ disease are more prone to eye problems than nonsmokers with the disease. No single gene causes Graves’ disease. It is thought to be triggered by both genetics and environmental factors.
Eye Problems — usually in the form of inflamed and swollen eye muscles and tissues that can cause the eyeballs to protrude from their sockets. However, only a small percentage of all Graves’ patients will experience this condition, known as proptosis or exophthalmos. Even among those who do, the severity of their bout with Graves’ has no bearing on the seriousness of the eye problem or how far the eyeballs protrude. In fact, it isn’t clear whether such eye complications stem from Graves’ disease itself or from a totally separate, yet closely linked, disorder. If you have developed exophthalmos, your eyes may ache and feel dry and irritated. Protruding eyeballs are prone to excessive tearing and redness, partly because the eyelids can no longer shelter them effectively from injury.
In severe cases of exophthalmos, which are rare, swollen eye muscles can put tremendous pressure on the optic nerve, possibly leading to partial blindness. Eye muscles weakened by long periods of inflammation can lose their ability to control movement, resulting in double vision.
Symptoms of Graves’ Disease include:
- Weight loss despite increased appetite
- Faster heart rate,
- higher blood pressure, and
- increased nervousness
- Excessive perspiration
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- More frequent bowel movements
- Muscle weakness,
- trembling hands
- Development of a goiter
- Bulging eyes
- Reddish, thickened, and lumpy skin in front of the shins
- In women, change in frequency or total cessation of menstrual periods
Your primary care doctor may use several methods to double-check the findings and rule out other disorders. If bulging eyeballs are the only symptom, your doctor will probably run blood tests to check for hyperthyroidism, since this eye disorder is not always related to Graves’ disease. The doctor may also evaluate eye muscles using ultrasound, a CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Signs of swelling in any one of these tests will go along with the diagnosis of Graves’ disease.
What Are the Treatments for Graves’ Disease? Although the disorder is rooted in a malfunctioning immune system, the goal of treatment is to restore thyroid hormone levels to their correct balance and to relieve discomfort. The two most frequently used treatments involve disabling the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones. One common approach uses a strong dose of radioactive iodine to destroy cells in the thyroid gland. Antithyroid drugs such as propylthiouracil and methimazole (Tapazole), which interfere with thyroid hormone production, can be used to treat Graves’ disease.
Graves’ disease patients with eye problems can find temporary relief from the redness, swelling, and pain through a number of drugs. However, these medications should not be used for long periods of time, as they can lead to bone loss, muscle weakness, and weight gain. Vision problems and severe cases of eye protrusion can often be corrected through radiation therapy and surgery. A person who has Graves’ disease should also see an eye doctor. Make sure to ask your doctor about any possible complications before undergoing surgery.
Home Remedies for treating Graves’ Disease:
- If your lids cannot close completely over your eyes, use eye patches at night. This will help keep eyes from drying out.
- Use over-the-counter or prescription artificial tears to moisten eyes whenever they feel dry.
- If your eyes are red and swollen in the morning, sleep with your head elevated.
- Wear tinted glasses to protect the eyes from bright light, sunlight, and wind.