Graves' disease gets its name from the doctor who first discovered this medical condition, Robert J. Graves. The disease is a medical condition associated with the endocrine system, particularly the thyroid glands. This is a medical condition that causes the thyroid glands to produce excessive thyroid hormones. In this condition, the thyroid glands overproduce the hormones and it is also known as hyperthyroidism.
Graves' disease falls under the category of autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system begins to act against the body and begins to attack the healthy organs and tissues. In this condition, the immune system makes a thyroid stimulating antibody known as immunoglobin or TSI. Due to the presence of this TSI, the thyroid glands begin to produce excessive levels of thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
Could you get affected by graves' disease?
Graves' disease is a common condition that has affected as many as 10 million people in US alone. Anyone can be affected by this disease, however certain factors can increase your chances of acquiring this disease.
- Genetics: Certain genes and heredity factors can put one at a higher risk of suffering from graves' disease. Researchers have found a significant linkage between genetics and the disease, however it is yet unknown which specific genes cause the disease.
- Sex: Women are more prone to the risk of graves' disease as compared to men.
- Age factor: People under the age of 40 years old fall under the higher risk bracket of acquiring the disease.
- Autoimmune medical conditions: People suffering from other autoimmune medical conditions such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis are at a higher risk of acquiring graves' disease.
- Stress: Stress - emotional and physical, is a common trigger for autoimmune diseases including graves' disease. Stressful events can trigger the disease for those who have a genetic inclination towards the disease.
- Expecting mothers: Pregnant and new mothers who are undergoing various hormonal changes in their body are often susceptible to acquiring this disease.
- Smoking: You have heard cigarette smoking is injurious to health. Among many other risks associated with smoking, there is also a risk of acquiring graves' disease.
Symptoms associated with graves' disease
There are a number of symptoms that, when identified at the right time, can help in an early diagnosis of the disease, and can help in treating the disease at its start. Some of the common signs of graves' disease include:
- Irritation and anxiety
- Shivering of hands or fingers
- Increase in sensitivity to heat that can result in severe sweating
- Unexplained weight loss
- Erectile dysfunction
- Increased rate of heart beat
Graves' ophthalmology: In a number of cases, graves' disease can culminate into a disease that is known as graves' opthalmopathy. Graves' opthalmopathy is a medical condition affecting muscles and tissues around the eyes. Symptoms of graves' opthalmopathy include:
- Inflammation of the eyes
- Pain of the eyes
- Puffed up eyes
- Redness of the eyes
- Sensitivity towards light
- Blurred vision
- Loss of vision
Graves' dermopathy: In some cases, graves' disease can also lead to graves' dermopathy, which is a medical condition involving thickening of the skin around the shin and the feet area.
Is graves' disease a complicated disease?
Graves' disease can lead to a serious hormonal imbalance in the body which can have a number of serious side effects resulting in other medical conditions. Here are a few complications that are associated with graves' disease:
Pregnancy: Graves' disease can result in complications for expectant mothers. Some of the risks associated with graves' disease during pregnancy include:
- Preterm birth
- Poor development of fetes
- High blood pressure in the mother
- Thyroid imbalance in the growing fetes
- Various hormonal imbalances in the mother
- Cardiac issues: Graves' disease can lead to changes in heart functioning such as function of the muscles in the heart, hampering of the heart’s function to pump blood and a subsequent heart failure.
- Thyroid storm: Thyroid storm is one of the common complications occurring from graves' disease or hyperthyroidism. An abnormal increase in the secretion of thyroid hormones can cause a number of side effects such as fever, intense sweating, diarrhea, seizures, sudden fatigue and weakness. Thyroid storm needs immediate medical attention.
- Weakness of the bones: Hyperthyroidism that is left untreated for a long time can lead to osteoporosis or weaker muscles and bones. There are other causes that also determine the weakness of the bones such as the calcium and mineral content in the body. Excess thyroid in the body interferes with calcium absorption in the body.
Is graves' disease curable?
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor will prescribe medications and treatments that control the production of thyroid hormones. Some of the treatments include:
Radioactive iodine therapy: In this treatment, radioactive iodine is consumed by the mouth. Since the thyroid depends on iodine content in the body to produce thyroid hormones, the radioiodine is absorbed by the thyroid cells, destroys the thyroid cells over a period of time and controls their hyperactivity. Eventually the thyroid glands shrink, reducing the symptoms over a longer period of time.
Like any treatment, radioiodine therapy also comes with risks of side effects that can worsen or start the symptoms of graves' opthalmopathy. The side effect may not be very serious and could be temporary. However if you are uncomfortable and facing issues related to your eyes, then you should consult your doctor immediately. Some of the other side effects associated with the treatment can include softness of the neck, increase in thyroid hormones and so on. This therapy is not safe for expecting or breast feeding mothers. The downside of this treatment is that since the treatment affects the thyroid activity causing a decline, later there may be treatments required to restore the thyroid hormone supply in the body.
Medications: Anti-thyroid medicines like propylthiouracil and methimazole (Tapazole) are prescribed to treat the condition. The anti-thyroid medications are recommended to supplement the radioiodine therapy. These medicines in isolation can cause the disease to reoccur.
Some of the side effects that can occur through these drugs are: rashes, pain in the joints, impaired liver functioning or decrease in WBC count. Methimazole drug is not recommended for pregnant women.
Beta blockers: Beta blockers are a class of medicines that do not stop the production of thyroid hormones, but they do reduce and stop the effect of the hormones on the body. They can provide relief from various symptoms associated with the disease such as erratic heartbeats, shivering, irritation, heat intolerance, diarrhea and so on. Beta blockers are not recommended for persons suffering from asthma as they could result in an asthma attack. They should also be used with discretion for people suffering from diabetes as they may complicate the management of the disease.
Surgery: In extreme cases in which all other treatment measures fail, doctors may recommend a surgery to remove a part of the thyroid. Again, after the surgery, one may require supplementary treatment to increase the levels of thyroid in the body which are likely to get affected.
Overall, medication should be enough to treat and manage most thyroid conditions. Consult with your doctor on your individual case.