Overactive thyroid glands may lead to the most common form of hyperthyroidism known as
Graves' disease, named after Irish Robert J. Graves, MD, who first discovered it circa 1830s.
Today, it is said to affect more than 14 million people out of 20 million who suffer from hyperthyroidism worldwide. Graves' disease tends to run in families and occur more frequently in young women, though there is little known information as to how specific individuals become susceptible to this form of thyroid disorder.
When a person succumbs to Graves’ disease, the autoantibodies in his or her blood stimulate the thyroid to grow and secrete excessive amounts of thyroid hormones.
The symptoms of Graves' disease may be similar to those of other types of hyperthyroidism such as:
- increased perspiration
- decreased fertility
- racing of the heart
- finger tremor
- emotional nervousness, irritability
- thinning of the skin
- thinning of hair
- change in skin and nails texture
- muscular weakness felt in the upper arms and thighs
- weight loss despite eating well
- decreased rate in menstrual periods for women
With Graves' disease, however, the most telling signs are a bulging eye or what appears to be eye enlargement caused by the lifting of the upper eyelids. Sometimes, both eyes may bulge.
In other cases, patients have reported of frontal neck swelling resulting from goiter (the enlargement of the thyroid gland).
This disorder is also associated with vitiligo (hyperpigmentation), Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic sclerosis, to name a few ailments. It may cause multiple organs to dysfunction.
How to know if you have Graves' disease
A physical examination can usually determine if you have a thyroid disorder. Aside from an enlarged thyroid and rapid pulse, your attending physician will also look for eye abnormalities; fine, warm, moist skin, trembling fingertips, and quickened reflexes, among other tell-tale signs.
Blood tests can confirm the initial diagnosis by measuring the amount of your thyroid hormones called thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) as well as thethyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood.
If your blood tests confirm overactivity of your thyroid gland, your physician may ask you to undergo a thyroid scan which will determine the extent of overactivity--whether it affects the
entire gland or if it is a case of toxic nodular goiter or thyroiditis (thyroid inflammation). At the same time, a test that measures the ability of your thyroid to collect iodine may be conducted.
How to treat Graves' disease
There are three common forms of primary treatment for Graves' disease today:
(1) destroying the thyroid by 131I irradiation
(2) taking antithyroid drugs to block the hormone synthesis;
(3) partial or total surgery of the thyroid.
In the past, doctors treated Graves' disease patients with iodine or by Roentgen irradiation. Today, however, doctors have stopped using iodine as a definitive form of treatment because of its incomplete benefits. In addition, more effective methods have become available.
Iodine is primarily used now to prepare patients for surgical thyroidectomy in conjunction with antithyroid drugs--when that type of therapy has been chosen.