Also known as Basedow’s disease, Grave’s disease is a common cause of hyperthyroidism, when the thyroid gland in the neck is overactive and produces too much of the hormone called thyroid.
It is classified as an autoimmune disease since the body is technically attacking itself instead of the outside microscopic organisms that it normally attacks. Grave’s disease causes the body to make a particular kind of antibody called thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH. This causes the thyroid gland to go into overdrive and sickness develops. The exact cause of Grave’s disease is unknown but it does run in families and women under the age of 40 suffer from it more than men.
Patients under 40 tend to have symptoms of increased appetite, unexplained weight loss even though they are eating more often, more anxiety than usual, more irritability than usual, sweating more than usual, weakness in shoulder or hip muscles during normal tasks, problems walking, problems breathing or shortness of breath, sleep difficulties and breast growth in men. Women who usually have regular periods suddenly have irregular periods.
Older patients often have chest pains, rapid heartbeats, irregular heartbeat, tire easily, have memory problems and overall weakness. Both younger and older patients may experience vision problems like double vision, blurry vision, pain or soreness in the eyeballs and even eyeballs that are visibly bulging out of their sockets. If left untreated, a goiter in the neck develops as well as thickening skin in the lower leg and eyes can become painfully sensitive to light. Depression is common and dangerous weight gain starts.
WARNING: Grave’s disease can be lethal if not treated.
The causes of Graves’ disease are not definitively known, but there are several risk factors that are associated with developing Graves’.
Graves’ appears to have a genetic component. Individuals with family members who have thyroid disease are more likely to develop Graves’, as are those whose family members have autoimmune diseases. Individuals who have autoimmune diseases themselves are also at higher risk of developing Graves’ disease. There is an association with vitiligo, lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s disease, and pernicious anemia.
Gender is also strongly associated with Graves’. Women are about 8 to 10 times more likely to develop the disease than men are, and the disease is also associated with pregnancy. Researchers are working to determine whether sex hormones play a role.
Age is also associated with developing the disease, which usually appears first when individuals are under 40 years old.
Smoking is another risk factor, as it is related to other autoimmune diseases. Smokers are more likely to develop Graves’, and also, once diagnosed, to develop Graves’ ophthalmopathy.
Stress may trigger the disease in some people with a predisposition. Severe stress is associated with some who develop Graves’.
There are also some indications that infection may be related to developing Graves’, although there are no studies to date showing a definitive causal connection.
Since the symptoms of Grave’s disease are similar to other medical problems, a blood test and skin tests are often needed for a diagnosis.
Fortunately, Grave’s disease is treatable with medication to calm down the thyroid and steroids to reduce swelling in the eyes. If this does not work, then swallowing radioactive iodine is the next treatment step. In the worst cases, the thyroid needs to be surgically removed.
Since the exact causes of Graves’ disease are unknown, there is no definitive way to prevent it. However, there are some recommendations to reduce the risk.
If family members have Graves’ or other autoimmune disorders, or if the individual has other autoimmune disorders, there is an increased risk of developing Graves’. Those with a predisposition can get tested to see if they have developed it since, in mild cases, there may not be any symptoms.
It may also be helpful to avoid steroids.