Graves Disease: An Autoimmune Disease of the Thyroid

What Is Graves Disease?

Hyperthyroidism

Graves disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland. It is known as the most common cause of hyperthyroidism (excessive production of the thyroid hormone), and also a common cause of an enlarged thyroid.

Causes

The exact cause of Graves disease is unknown, but studies have shown that it may run in families. There are also certain factors that put you at an increased risk of developing Graves disease, such as excessive stress or already having another autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is also more commonly found in women than men.

Types of Graves Disease

There is currently only one type of Graves disease.

Autoimmune diseases

Symptoms

Graves disease affects the thyroid gland, which plays a role in various functions throughout the body. For this reason, Graves disease presents with wide-ranging symptoms including, but not limited to the following:

  • Irritability
  • Fast heart rate
  • Bulging eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Eye twitching
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Hand tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Skin rashes

Eye disorders

Diagnosis

Hyperthyroidism

Radioactive iodine testing is used to check for hyperthyroidism.

Diagnosing Graves disease consists of a thorough physical examination and assessment of the patient’s symptoms. Since Graves disease presents with a wide range of symptoms, it is often mistaken for other conditions initially. To confirm Graves disease, various blood tests are done to check thyroid hormone levels. This will determine if hyperthyroidism is present, which can be indicative of Graves disease. Another test is a radioactive iodine uptake scan, or RAIU, which looks at how much iodine the thyroid absorbs and whether or not is overactive. For an RAIU scan, the patient consumes an iodine pill approximately 4 to 6 hours prior to the thyroid being scanned. One scan is performed at that point and then an additional scan is performed 24 hours later. The scan measures the amount of iodine that is absorbed by the thyroid. An increased iodine uptake is indicative of hyperthyroidism or Graves disease.

Treatment

Treatment for Graves disease consists of medication, lifestyle changes, and in some cases surgery. Patients are usually given anti-thyroid medication to limit the increased hormone being produced by the thyroid. Patients may also take medications to treat certain symptoms of Graves disease such as beta blockers to control an increased heart rate. Another treatment for Graves disease is radioactive iodine therapy. In radioactive iodine therapy, the patient consumes pills that will effectively destroy cells of the thyroid and stop its ability to produce hormones. In severe cases of Graves disease, the thyroid may be surgically removed.

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