Myxedema is a difficult skin condition, which can progress to even more severe symptoms when people have hypothyroidism or low thyroid hormone levels. The condition is known by several other names including Graves’ dermopathy, and when it is part of Graves’ it is associated with hyperthyroidism or very high thyroid levels. Usually the condition is due to hypothyroidism, and thyroid levels have to be notably low for long periods of time. The condition may be more common with certain types of thyroid disorders like Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that causes the body to treat thyroid hormones as foreign. Other causes for this condition can include removal of the thyroid, called thyroidectomy,
The skin symptoms of myxedema are usually present concurrently with other symptoms of low thyroid hormones, and both should be noted. With persistently low thyroid hormone levels, a person may have aches and pains, feel a strong sense of fatigue, have memory loss or confusion, and gain weight easily. In older people, symptoms of hypothyroidism can be confused with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Getting the right diagnosis is crucial, since ultimately failure to have enough thyroid hormone may cause people to lapse into a coma.
In this sense myxedema may help make diagnosis of hypothyroidism easier, but the symptoms can be difficult to bear. The skin can become thicker and coarser. It is usually dryer, and there may be water retention. Skin can also take on a yellow or orange discoloration. In addition, there are areas under the skin that have deposits of a material that is called “jellylike” and these areas cause skin swelling. Occasionally the condition only affects the legs and may be called partial, but more often it affects the whole body with marked swelling, and roughness of the skin especially around the palms, knees, elbows and soles of the feet.
Myxedema may be compared to lymphedema, but there are several differences. Swelling is caused by both conditions, but in lymphedema the swelling is asymmetrical and may be controlled but not cured. Regulating thyroid hormone levels may actually cure myxedema and all signs of the condition may recess if hormone levels are right. The other point of comparison that is used is that lymphedema may usually ruled out if blood tests to check thyroid stimulating hormone and actual hormone levels come back as abnormal.
Treatment for myxedema does involve supplementation with thyroid hormone. This usually causes swelling to recess. When people have autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, they may require fairly constant blood monitoring to make sure that thyroid hormone levels stay within normal ranges.