Overview

    Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder. It causes hyperthyroidism, which occurs if the thyroid gland creates too much thyroid hormone in the body. Graves’ disease is one of the most common forms of hyperthyroidism.

    If you have Graves’ disease, your immune system creates antibodies known as thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins, which attach to healthy thyroid cells. They can cause your thyroid to create too much of the thyroid hormone.

    Thyroid hormones are responsible for many aspects of the body, such as nervous system function, brain development, body temperature, and other important elements.

    If left untreated, hyperthyroidism may cause weight loss, emotional liability, depression, and mental or physical fatigue.

    What Causes Graves’ Disease?

    In autoimmune disorders like Graves’ disease the immune system begins to fight against healthy tissues and cells in your body. Although scientists know people can inherit the ability to make antibodies against their own healthy cells, they have no way to determine what causes the disorder or who will develop it.

    Who Is at Risk for Graves’ Disease?

    It is believed that heredity, stress, age, and gender may contribute to potential risk factors.

    The disease is typically found in people younger than 40. Your risk also increases if family members have Graves’ disease. Women develop it five to 10 more times than men.

    Any autoimmune disease also increases your risk, as does conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, vitiligo, and type 1 diabetes.

    What Are the Symptoms of Graves’ Disease?

    Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism share many of the same symptoms. These symptoms may include:

    • hand tremors
    • weight loss
    • intolerance to heat
    • fatigue
    • nervousness
    • irritability
    • muscle weakness
    • goiter (swelling in the thyroid gland)
    • diarrhea or increased frequency in bowel movements
    • difficulty sleeping

    A small percentage of people with Graves’ disease will experience reddened, thickened skin around the shin area. This is a condition called Graves’ dermopathy.

    Another symptom you may experience is known as Graves’ ophthalmopathy. This occurs when your eyes may seem enlarged as a result of the eyelids retracting. As a result, eyes may begin to bulge from the eye sockets. It is estimated that about 25 percent of people who develop Graves’ disease will also get Graves’ ophthalmopathy.

    How is Graves’ Disease Diagnosed?

    Your doctor may request laboratory tests if he or she suspects Graves’ disease. If anyone in your family has had Graves’ disease, your doctor may be able to provide a diagnosis on the basis of your medical history, combined with a physical examination. An endocrinologist may handle the tests and diagnosis of this condition.

    Your doctor also may request some of the following tests:

    • blood tests
    • thyroid scan
    • radioactive iodine uptake test
    • TSH test
    • TSI test

    When the results of these tests are combined, they may determine if you have Graves’ disease or another type of thyroid disorder.

    How is Graves’ Disease Treated?

    Individuals with Graves’ disease may discover they gain desired results from treatment. There are three options:

    • anti-thyroid drugs
    • radioiodine therapy
    • thyroid surgery

    Your doctor may suggest you use one or more of these options to treat your disorder.

    Anti-Thyroid Drugs. Anti-thyroid drugs, such as propylthiouracil or methimazole may be prescribed. Beta-blockers may also be used to help reduce the effects of symptoms until other treatments begin to work.

    Radioiodine Therapy. One of the most common treatments for Graves’ disease, it requires you to take doses of radioactive iodine-131.

    Thyroid Surgery. Although thyroid surgery is an option, it is used less often. Doctors may choose surgery if previous treatments have not worked correctly, if thyroid cancer is suspected, or if a pregnant woman cannot take anti-thyroid drugs.

    When surgery is necessary, doctors may remove the entire thyroid gland to eliminate the risk of hyperthyroidism returning. Individuals who opt for surgery will need thyroid hormone replacement therapy for the rest of their lives.