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Graves Disease: The What, Why, Who & How

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

After Wendy Williams announced she would be taking a break from her show to treat her Graves’ disease, millions of viewers may have been wondering: what exactly IS this scary-sounding disease? Graves’ disease is both treatable and common – affecting about 1 in 200 people in the U.S. When it’s caught early, patients can often live normal, symptom-free lives.

Williams isn’t the first high-profile personality to battle Graves’ disease. Our 41st president, George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara were both treated for Graves'.  More recently, rapper Missy Elliott was at the peak of her career when she was diagnosed in 2008. After losing weight and becoming so weakened she couldn’t pick up a pen, successful treatment helped Elliott get back on her feet.

Florida Hospital’s endocrine specialists provide patients with the latest treatments to control Graves’ disease and improve overall wellness. Here’s a look at the what, why and who of Graves’ disease, and how we can provide care.

What is Graves’ Disease?

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone – a condition known as hyperthyroidism. Excessive thyroid hormones can have negative effects throughout the body, most notably the heart. Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to serious heart problems, including rhythm disorders and congestive heart failure.

Who gets it?

Anyone can develop Graves’ disease, but it is more common in women. It is usually diagnosed after the age of 20 and before age 40, and can be triggered by stress.  Genetics and family history may also play a role. Cigarette smoking, pregnancy and having other autoimmune disorders can increase a person’s risk for developing Graves’ disease.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of Graves’ disease are often widespread, affecting everything from metabolism to mental health. Every patient is different, but some of the common signs of Graves’ disease include:

  • Bulging and/or irritated eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Anxiety/irritability
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
  • Heat sensitivity and increased perspiration
  • Hand tremors
  • Nervousness
  • Increased hunger
  • Thickened, red skin on the shins and/or tops of feet (Graves’ dermopathy)
  • Heart palpitations (rapid or irregular heartbeat)
  • Breast enlargement in men

Around 30% of Graves’ disease patients develop Graves’ ophthalmopathy, with the hallmark symptom of bulging eyeballs. It may be accompanied with other eye changes, including pressure or pain, puffy or retracted eyelids, red and inflamed eyes, a sensation of grittiness, double vision, light sensitivity and vision loss.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for Graves’ disease, but treatment can help curb thyroid overstimulation. Once thyroid hormone levels are normalized, symptoms tend to ease or subside. Fortunately, Graves’ disease is usually very responsive to treatment. The type of treatment a patient receives depends on a number of factors, but leading treatment options include:

  • Beta-blockers to treat rapid heart rate, sweating and anxiety
  • Anti-thyroid medications
  • Radioactive iodine
  • Smoking cessation
  • Steroid medications
  • Surgery


Why is it important to treat quickly?

There is a very strong connection between hyperthyroidism and cardiac problems. If an overactive thyroid goes untreated, the cardiac complications can be very serious. Abnormal heart rhythms, changes to the heart muscles and congestive heart failure are a few of the dangerous conditions that may develop from untreated hyperthyroidism. Dr. Damon Tanton, M.D. explains, "As a general rule, our bodies become overwhelmed when faced with hyperthyroidism.  It is, therefore, essential to seek definitive treatment as early as possible."

Not all hyperthyroidism is caused by Graves’ disease, so your doctor will need to examine you and run blood work as well as scans to identify the cause before prescribing a care plan. With the right treatment, Graves’ disease patients can live a long, healthy life without missing a beat.

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