Graves’ disease is a common type of hyperthyroidism that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce excess amounts of the hormone thyroxine. High levels of thyroxine lead to an increased metabolic rate, which can affect everything from your mood to how you look.
The disease is found more often in women than in men and although Graves’ can develop at any point in life, it usually begins after age twenty.
Graves’ disease is rarely life-threatening but an early diagnosis is important, as the symptoms of the disease can interfere with a person’s everyday life. There is no cure for Graves’, but treatment will alleviate symptoms and decrease the thyroid’s production of thyroxine.
Symptoms of Graves’ Disease
Doctors do not know what causes a person to develop Graves’ disease. Normally, the immune system works to eliminate viruses, bacteria, and other harmful substances from the body, but in people with Graves’, the immune system malfunctions and attacks the thyroid gland. Instead of destroying the gland, an antibody called thyrotropin receptor antibody, or TRAb, causes an overproduction of the principal thyroid hormone thyroxine.
Typically, Graves’ disease is not life-threatening, but symptoms can be uncomfortable and disruptive to a person’s life. A person with Graves’ may experience:
• Trouble sleeping
• Sleepiness or fatigue
• A rapid or irregular heartbeat
• Tremors in the hands or fingers
• Increased sweating
• Sensitivity to heat
• Weight loss
• Brittle hair
• An enlarged thyroid gland
• Changes in menstrual cycles
• Frequent bowel movements
Individuals with Graves’ disease may also experience a condition of the eyes known as Graves’ ophthalmopathy. This condition causes the eyeballs to bulge out past their protective orbit due to swollen tissue and muscle behind the eye.
Cigarette smokers are five times more likely than non-smokers to develop the condition, possibly because smoking inhibits the absorption of anti-thyroid medication used to treat Graves’ disease.
Symptoms of Graves’ ophthalmopathy include:
• Excess tearing and a sensation of grittiness in the eye
• Red, swollen, or inflamed eyes
• A widening of the space between the eyelids
• Swollen eyelids
• Sensitivity to light
In some cases, patients may also develop:
• Ulcers on the cornea
• Double vision
• Limited eye movements
• Blurred or reduced vision
Uncommon additional symptoms of Graves’ disease include swelling and reddening of the skin, particularly on the skin and tops of the feet. This is called Graves’ dermopathy.
If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, see your healthcare provider. Seek emergency care if you are experiencing heart-related symptoms such as a rapid or irregular heartbeat.
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