Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder that leads to overactivity of the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
The thyroid gland is an important organ of the endocrin system. It is located in the front of the neck just below the voice box. This gland releases the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which control body metabolism. Controlling metabolism is critical for regulating mood, weight, and mental and physical energy levels.
If the body makes too much thyroid hormone, the condition is called hyperthyroidism. (An underactive thyroid leads to hypothyroidism).
Graves disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. It is caused by an abnormal immune system response that causes the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone. Graves disease is most common in women over age 20. However, the disorder may occur at any age and may affect men as well.
Exams and Tests
Physical examination shows an increased heart rate. Examination of the neck may show that the thyroid gland is enlarged (goiter).
Other tests include:
- Blood tests to measure levels of TSH, T3, and free T4
- Radioactive iodine uptake
This disease may also affect the following test results:
- Orbit CT scan or ultrasound
- Thyroid stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI)
- Thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibody
- Anti-TSH receptor antibody
The goal of treatment is to control the overactivity of the thyroid gland. Beta-blockers such as propranolol are often used to treat symptoms of rapid heart rate, sweating, and anxiety until the hyperthyroidism is controlled. Hyperthyroidism is treated with one or more of the following:
- Antithyroid medications
- Radioactive iodine
If you have radiation or surgery, you may need to take replacement thyroid hormones for the rest of your life, because these treatments destroy or remove all or part of the gland.
Some of the eye problems related to Graves disease improve when hyperthyroidism is treated with medications, radiation, or surgery. Radioactive iodine can sometimes make eye problems worse. Eye problems are worse in people who smoke, even after the hyperthyroidism is cured.
Sometimes prednisone (a steroid medication that suppresses the immune system) is needed to reduce eye irritation and swelling.
You may need to tape your eyes closed at night to prevent drying. Sunglasses and eyedrops may reduce eye irritation. Rarely, surgery or radiation therapy (different from radioactive iodine) may be needed to return the eyes to their normal position.