There are many conditions that can affect the thyroid gland, which is commonly described as the butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. These conditions can cause a wide variety of health problems, as the thyroid is responsible for many functions.
Graves’ disease is a common condition of the thyroid, and it’s actually the most common cause of hyperthyroidism – but fortunately, it’s treatable. Here are 13 things you should know about this disease and how it affects patients…
1. What is Graves’ Disease?
The Mayo Clinic describes Graves’ disease as an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones. “Although a number of disorders may result in hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease is a common cause,” it notes.
The impact of the disease on patients can vary from case to case, as thyroid hormones affect a number of systems in the body, it adds. Generally, it will affect your overall well-being, and it can be fatal in some cases if not treated.
2. Related Symptoms
Because thyroid hormones affect so many of your functions, you can have a few or many of the following symptoms due to an abundance of thyroid hormones in your system. The symptoms generally progress with time, and the disease is not always easy to catch early on.
EndocrineWeb.com lists the common symptoms of the disease as anxiety, chest pain, elevated blood pressure, hand tremors, fatigue, increased sweating, muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat, sensitivity to heat, vision problems, shortness of breath, and even bulging eyes.
3. Swelling of the Neck
You may also develop a goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid that makes the front of your neck look swollen, according to EndocrineWeb.com. The type of goiters associated with Graves’ disease have its own name – diffuse thyrotoxic goiters, says the source.
The goiters can be small lumps or larger, it adds. Because of this, it can make swallowing more difficult, and if “it’s big enough, it can also cause you to cough and may make it more difficult for you to sleep,” says the source.
4. Evidence in the Skin
The same source says that in “rare cases,” the disease can cause you to “develop lumpy reddish patches” and thickening of the skin of the shin, a condition medically known as pretibial myxedema.
The source says that this symptom may look alarming, but it’s not usually associated with pain and it is relatively harmless. However, it can provide a big clue to what you’re dealing with.
5. Eyeing Graves’ Disease
The Mayo Clinic says about 30-per cent of Graves’ patients also have signs of Graves’ ophthalmopathy, which has many symptoms including the bulging eyes. “In Graves’ ophthalmopathy, inflammation and other immune system events affect muscles and other tissues around your eyes,” it adds.
Other symptoms of this related condition include a gritty feeling in the eyes, puffy eyelids, light sensitivity, pain in the eyes, double vision, or even loss of vision, adds the source.
6. Main Causes
EndocrineWeb.com says it’s “hard to pinpoint the exact cause,” but notes the disease the result of an autoimmune disorder that typically causes your immune system to turn against your otherwise healthy systems.
In patients with Graves’ disease, the immune system produces antibodies called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins (TSIs), which ultimately “cause your thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone than your body needs,” it adds. These TSIs “trick” the thyroid into overproducing thyroid hormone, leading to hyperthyroidism, it says.
7. Risk Factors
The same source also explains that ongoing research is being conducted about what triggers this type of autoimmune response in Graves’ disease patients. Family history of the disease may put you at higher risk of developing it due to the suspected genetic link, adds the source.
EndocrineWeb.com also says gender plays a role in risk – it’s more common among women, particularly in women that are older than 20-years of age. However, anyone of any age can get it, it adds.
8. Neonatal Graves’ Disease
The University of Rochester Medical Center says there’s such a thing as children and even infants being affected by this disease. “Graves disease occurs more often in children than in newborns. But it can also occur in newborn babies,” it explains.
The source warns if the disease is not diagnosed early in newborns, it can be fatal. It draws a direct genetic link to babies having the condition. “The mother’s antibodies can cross the placenta and affect the thyroid gland in the growing baby,” it says, adding not all babies will have it if their mother does. This can also unfortunately result in stillbirth, premature birth or miscarriage, it adds.
9. Diagnosing The Disease
Heathline.com says doctors may request a lab test to confirm the presence of the disease, also using your family’s medical history as an indicator. “This will still need to be confirmed by thyroid blood tests,” it adds.
The source says your usual doctor may refer you to a doctor that specializes in hormones, called an endocrinologist, to conduct the tests and arrive at a diagnosis. Other tests that may be applied include a thyroid scan, radioactive iodine uptake test, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test, or a thyroid stimulating immunoglobin (TSI) test, it adds.
10. Treatment after Diagnosis
There are a few ways your medical team can treat Graves’ disease, depending on the severity or resistance to certain approaches. They include administering anti-thyroid drugs or beta-blockers “to help reduce the effects of your symptoms until other treatments begin to work,” explains Healthline.
These other therapies include radioiodine therapy, which the source says is the most common approach for Graves’. The treatment involves taking doses (usually in pill form) of radioactive iodine-131. Surgery is also a less-commonly used option, but can be useful if other therapies aren’t working. Surgery may also be used if thyroid cancer is suspected, or you’re pregnant and can’t take anti-thyroid medications, it adds.
11. Importance of Prompt Treatment
Buzzfeed says Graves’ disease symptoms are not something to ignore, because in rare cases untreated cases can lead to a “potentially life-threatening situation” called a thyroid storm, medically known as thyrotoxicosis – which basically makes your organs stop functioning.
However, it’s pretty rare for the disease to get to that point before people are diagnosed and given the right treatments, adds the source. However, not having access to proper medical care or skipping doses of medication can cause “serious heart issues,” it warns.
12. The Graves’ Diet
Aside from getting proper medical treatment, there are foods you can eat (and avoid) to help manage the disease, says Healthline. “Foods containing specific nutrients can help reduce some of the symptoms associated with Graves’ disease,” it notes.
Food that get the green light include calcium-rich foods (other than dairy) like almonds, broccoli, and sardines, as well as choices high in vitamin D (to help absorb calcium) including sardines, cod liver oil, salmon, and mushrooms. Also ask your doctor or dietician about foods high in magnesium (avocados and cashews, for example) and other containing selenium (brown rice and sunflower seeds are two).
13. Foods to Avoid
The same source explains there are foods that can make the problem worse, and therefore should be avoided. They include food that has gluten in it – you know, mostly your wheat products. “There is a higher incidence of Celiac disease in people who have thyroid disease than there is in the general population,” it says.
You should also avoid foods with dietary iodine, as it can potentially trigger hyperthyroidism in older adults, it adds. Table salt, bread, and even dairy products can have iodine – although iodine is still essential for proper health, so talk to your medical team about how much you should be getting if you have the disease.