Graves’ Disease: How Does It Affect the Thyroid Gland?

Too much of a good thing can be bad for your health. That is the fundamental problem of Graves’ disease, which throws the thyroid gland off and can cause further issues.

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system makes antibodies that cause the cells of the thyroid gland, a small structure in your neck, to overproduce thyroid hormone. Your body needs this hormone to regulate the function of many organs. An excess of it, however, can cause hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Without treatment, Graves’ disease can lead to serious health problems, including osteoporosis and an irregular heartbeat. Proper management, however, can keep this disorder in check.

Who’s at Risk for Graves’ Disease?

Why the immune system targets the thyroid gland, causing Graves’ disease, is unclear. However, although both genes and environmental factors may play a role in causing Graves’ disease, we know that certain factors can increase your risk.

Women are far more likely than men to develop Graves’ disease, especially if it runs in their family or they have recently been pregnant. Other risk factors include:

  • autoimmune diseases, such as anemia or Type 1 diabetes 
  • high stress
  • infection with the Epstein-Barr virus
  • smoking

Signs and Symptoms: From Eye Problems to Weight Loss

The signs and symptoms of Graves’ disease vary widely. Many patients experience symptoms of hyperthyroidism, including unexplained weight loss, fatigue, rapid or irregular heartbeat, difficulty sleeping and heat intolerance.

Symptoms may extend beyond those of hyperthyroidism. Some patients also develop eye problems, such as bulging eyes or sensitivity to light. Eye muscles may swell, which can put pressure on the optic nerve or lead to double vision. In some cases, Graves’ disease can also cause the skin on the shins and top of the feet to become rough, thick and red.

Diagnosing and Controlling Graves’ Disease

If you notice Graves’ disease-like symptoms, tell your primary care provider, who may refer you to an endocrinologist. There is no cure for the disease, but treatment can help manage it, and starting as soon as possible is important. Without treatment, Graves’ disease can harm your health in various ways. One of the most serious is thyroid storm, a life-threatening set of symptoms, including accelerated heart rate, that may occur in response to extreme physical stress.

Your medical provider will perform a physical exam and may order blood tests to look for abnormal thyroid hormone levels or check for telltale antibodies. You may also need to take a test showing how much iodine the thyroid collects from your blood.

Two main types of medicines treat Graves’ disease. Anti-thyroid medicines reduce thyroid hormone production. Beta-blockers treat certain symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat.

Your medical provider may recommend radioactive iodine therapy, which decreases thyroid hormone production, or thyroid surgery to remove a large part of or all the gland. These treatments, however, can lead to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). With this condition, you will need to supplement your thyroid production by taking thyroid hormone for the rest of your life. This is the best way to manage Graves’ disease to protect your health and do the things you love.

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