Graves’ disease is an immune system malfunctioning, which can lead to the excessive production of the thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism). Although hyperthyroidism can be caused by many diseases, Graves’ disease happens to be the most frequent one.
Since the thyroid hormones influence the functioning of various body systems, Graves’ disease can have a multitude of different symptoms and it often has a negative impact on the patient’s general health.
Graves’ disease is rarely life-threatening. It can develop in anyone, but it most commonly occurs in women under 40 years old. The main goal of treatment of this disorder is to inhibit the production of thyroid hormones and reduce the symptoms.
The most common Graves’ disease symptoms in women are:
- Increased anxiety
- Sleep Disorders
- Rapid and/or irregular pulse
- Sweating or unusually warm and moist skin
- Increased heat sensitivity
- Slight tremors of the hands and fingers
- Weight loss in spite of normal eating habits
- The increase in size of thyroid gland (goiter)
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Erectile dysfunction or decreased libido (in men)
- Bowel movement frequency and diarrhea
- Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
- Red and thick skin on legs and upper sides of feet (thyroid dermopathy)
Approximately half of the patients with Graves’ disease experience some signs of a disorder that is called Graves’ ophthalmopathy. During this disorder, inflammations and other changes associated with the functioning of the immune system affect the muscles and other tissues around the eyes. This leads to symptoms such as:
- Bulging eyes
- Excessive tearing
- Dryness and irritation of the eyes
- Swollen eyelids
- The feeling of pressure or pain in the eyes
- Redness and inflammation of the eye
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Double vision of objects
- Limited mobility of the eye, resulting in a frozen glance
- Deterioration of overall vision (rare)
- Ulcers of the cornea (rare)
Anyone with the symptoms of Graves’ disease should consult a doctor immediately. This will ensure that many complications associated with this disorder can be prevented.
The cause of the Graves’ disease is a dysfunction of the immune system. Normally, the immune system creates antibodies to shield the body from different bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances. During Graves’ disease, for reasons that are not yet entirely clear, the immune system produces antibodies to the protein which is located on the surface of the thyroid cells.
In a healthy body, the thyroid gland regulates the hormones that the pituitary gland produces. The antibodies that cause the Graves’ disease – the antibodies for the receptor of the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) mimic a hormone produced by the pituitary gland. Thus, antibodies to the TSH receptor cause a malfunction of the thyroid gland, resulting in an excessive production of thyroid hormones, or hyperthyroidism.
Thyroid hormones regulate the metabolism, heart and nervous system, body temperature, muscle strength and the menstrual cycle. Graves’ disease is able to influence on all of these functions to a certain degree, significantly altering the quality of life.
- Family history. It is assumed that there are genes that have a predisposition to the Graves’ disease. If your relatives have had or have the disorder, you may find yourself at risk.
- Gender. The likelihood of developing Graves’ disease symptoms in women is significantly higher than in men.
- Age. Most commonly Graves’ disease develops before the age of 40.
- Other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis increase the risk of Graves’ disease.
- Emotional and/or physical stress can be a trigger for Graves’ disease, especially in people who have a genetic predisposition to it.
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy and shortly after the childbirth the likelihood of this disorder is particularly high.
- Smoking also increases the risk of Graves’ disease, since it weakens the immune system. Heavy smokers are under the higher risk.