Graves’ disease is nothing to mess around with.
Talk show host Wendy Williams knows that all too well.
Williams recently announced she was taking a hiatus from her daytime show due to the condition.
Williams told viewers that her doctor had told her to take three weeks off from her program while she undergoes treatment.
Probably a smart move.
If not treated properly, Graves’ disease can affect your brain, your heart, and your muscles.
In more severe forms, it can cause painful muscle aches, sociopathic behavior, and even heart damage.
“It can be awful,” Dr. Leonard Wartofsky, past president of the Endocrine Society and a professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Healthline.
So what exactly is Graves’ disease?
It’s an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid.
Its main symptom is hyperthyroidism, which results in too much of the thyroid’s hormone being produced.
That occurs because the antibodies created by the autoimmune issue cause the thyroid to make more of its hormone.
That can have serious consequences throughout the body.
“The thyroid hormone has an effect on every organ and tissue in the body,” said Wartofsky, who is also editor-in-chief of Endocrine Reviews.
The condition is the most common reason for hyperthyroidism in the United States. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of cases are the result of Graves’ disease.
The incidence of the disease is estimated at about 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Graves’ disease is seven to eight times more likely to be seen in women than men.
If you have another autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, you’re more likely to get Graves’ disease.
The condition is often triggered by a stressful event, such as giving birth or having a serious infection.
“Having one autoimmune condition can increase the risk for developing other autoimmune conditions,” Dr. Barrie Weinstein, assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and bone disease at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York, told Healthline.
Symptoms of Graves’ disease include insomnia, hand tremors, hyperactivity, elevated heartbeat (tachycardia), irregular or absent menstrual periods, protuberant eyes, and retraction of eyelids.
The protuberant eyes are considered the largest diagnostic “tell” for the condition.
Despite the potentially serious symptoms, Graves’ disease can be treated relatively easily.
“Treatment of Grave’s disease aims to ameliorate symptoms and reduce the production of thyroid hormone. Treatment options include antithyroid medication, radioactive iodine ablation, and surgery,” said Weinstein.
The first line of treatment is antithyroid agents, such as methimazole and potassium perchlorate. The drugs decrease the production of the thyroid hormone.
Most of the time, these drugs are taken over a period of six months to two years. Graves’ can still return even after treatment.
An estimated 40 to 50 percent of those treated will relapse. If a relapse occurs, other treatments may be recommended, since treatment with these drugs can cause liver disease and agranulocytosis over time.
According to Weinstein, “The majority of patients treated with antithyroid medications will relapse and need to move forward with more definitive therapy with either radioactive iodine ablation or surgery.”
Radioactive iodine isotope I-131 is often used instead of surgery.
The patient is admitted to the hospital and given a pill or drink containing the iodine. Further treatment by additional dose may be needed afterward.
Pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and people with thyroid eye disease can’t take this form of treatment.
Surgery is recommended for young people and pregnant women. In these operations, all or most of the thyroid is removed.
Surgery is an immediate cure, but complications may result, such as injury of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, hematoma, and scarring.
Both treatments essentially destroy the thyroid, so thyroid hormone replacement must be used for the rest of the patient’s life.
“Definitive treatment most often results in the development of hypothyroidism. Thyroid hormone replacement, in the form of a pill taken once daily, is then needed for the duration of one’s life,” said Weinstein.
What’s it like to have Graves’ disease?
Wartofsky said the symptoms of Graves’ disease can vary widely, depending on the severity of the ailment in a person and how long it takes them to get treatment.
He said if the ailment’s excessive production of thyroid hormone affects the brain, it can cause anxiousness, nervousness, and irritability.
In more severe cases, it can affect decision-making and even lead to sociopathic behavior.
“The mind is revved up and going 100 miles per hour and so are the emotions,” Wartofsky explained.
If the thyroid hormone affects the heart, it can cause that organ to beat faster or throw it off rhythm.
Some with Graves’ disease can hear their heartbeat in their ears.
If the effect is long term, it can cause heart damage and, in rare cases, congestive heart failure.
In muscles, Graves’ disease can cause painful soreness or fatigue, similar to what a runner gets if they go on too long of a run.
“They have this going on without the running,” said Wartofsky.
Graves’ disease can also affect the kidneys and gastrointestinal system. Among the symptoms are increased appetite and an increased ability to burn up calories.
That can cause people to lose weight, but it’s not the kind of weight-loss program most of them would like to be on.
Wartofsky said Williams’ three-week hiatus from her show sounds like a realistic break.
He said the surgery, iodine, and medication treatments usually take three to six weeks to work, along with recovery time.
Williams isn’t the first well-known person to shine a spotlight on Graves’ disease.
Former first lady Barbara Bush was hospitalized in 2010 after experiencing a mild relapse of the Graves’ disease that first afflicted her in the early 1990s.
Actress Faith Ford, who starred in the television show “Murphy Brown,” suffered from Graves’ disease in 1988.
Gail Devers, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the hurdles, was diagnosed with Graves’ disease while she was in college in 1990.