Graves' Disease is a form of hyperthyroidism, meaning that the body's thyroid gland overproduces thyroid hormones, leading to a range of symptoms. This condition appears more commonly in women than in men, and typically it appears in women over age 20. Symptoms of Graves' Disease range from mild to severe; generally, treatment of some form is recommended to ensure that serious complications do not set in. You may also hear this condition called exopthalmic goiter, toxic diffuse goiter, Basedow's Disease, or Parry's Disease.
The most distinctive symptom of Graves' Disease is protruding eyeballs, caused by pressure in the tissue behind the eye. Patients may also experience an accelerated heartbeat, agitation, dermatitis, thickened skin, edema, weight loss, sensitivity to light, brittle hair, lighter menstrual periods, and an assortment of other symptoms. Because the protruding eyeballs associated with Graves' Disease are so distinctive, they are a common diagnostic criterion.
This disease is classified as an autoimmune disease, because it is caused by a change in the immune system which causes it to randomly attack the thyroid, stimulating the thyroid into producing more hormones. Often the root cause of autoimmune condition is unknown; it may be a reaction to stress, the patient's environment, diet, or medications, and it could be genetic in nature as well. Without treatment, Graves' Disease generally gets worse, and it can result in complications like vision loss, birth defects, and sometimes even death.
The condition is named for Dr. Robert James Graves, who wrote up a case of a patient with a thyroid problem and protruding eyes in 1835, although it has been documented as far back as 12th century Persia. Treatments for Graves' Disease focus on alleviating the symptoms and attempting to block the thyroid, regulating hormone production so that the body can return to normal. Beta blockers, anti-thyroid medications, and radioactive iodine can all be used in the treatment of Graves' Disease, and in extreme cases patients may opt for surgical removal of the thyroid, requiring a lifetime of hormone replacement.
The ocular problems related to Graves' Disease can sometimes be alleviated with eyedrops and moisturizers, although the condition may require surgery if the protruding eyeballs get too severe. Generally a doctor will discuss all of the options with a patient before deciding on the best course of treatment to pursue, and many doctors are happy to work with patients to develop a treatment plan which is as non-invasive as possible.