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What is Graves' Disease?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon300905 — On Nov 01, 2012

I had Graves Disease, and had my thyroid removed (destroyed) using radioactive iodine. This was about 12 years ago. I take thyroid replacement in pill form, once a day.

I lost about 10 pounds one week, five more the next week, and was extremely jumpy. My heart rate became very unstable, and on the day that the palpitations continued from the time I went to bed until I had lunch. The next day I decided to go to the doc. I was sent to a specialist and scheduled to have my thyroid removed within a week. I didn't have as much trouble with my eyes protruding, but am still suffering from sensitivity to light (especially light that is blue, for some reason!) I was a 32 year old woman when diagnosed. I am now 44.

My guess is that it only really gets bad when undiagnosed or untreated for a while.

By lovealot — On Jul 02, 2011

Wow -- I can't imagine having this condition. Do all people with protruding eyeballs have Graves' disease, or can that be caused by other, more benign conditions?

By BoniJ — On Jul 01, 2011

Graves Disease or over-active thyroid, which produces too much hormone, seems to be a disease with lots of serious symptoms. There was a boy in my high school who had this disease. He had the protruding eyeballs. I think the illness was getting worse because his eyes kept protruding out further. I guess the treatments didn't work. He finally had surgery and had his thyroid taken out. I was surprised how much better his eyes looked.

I don't know why more women than men are affected by this disease. Maybe because hormones are involved, which seems to affect women more frequently than men.

This over-active thyroid gland really gets the body pumping - with heart beat at a high rate, hyper-activity, and weight loss, among other symptoms. It's a difficult disease to deal with.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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