by Kimberly Allen, RN
Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid gland. In fact it is the number one cause of hyperthyroidism. Over 3 million Americans suffer from Graves disease. It affects both men and women though women are ten times more likely than men. Graves disease can develop at any age though it most frequently manifests in early adulthood, usually between 20 to 40 years of age. People with a family history of Graves disease or some other autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Addison’s disease have a higher risk of developing the condition.
In people with Graves disease the immune system produces antibodies that behave like the thyroid stimulating hormone also known as TSH that is produced by the pituitary gland. This hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more of the hormones T3 and T4. These hormones are responsible for regulating how your body uses energy, in other words they control your metabolism. When there is too much TSH they thyroid gland over produces the hormones T3 and T4 therefore increasing your metabolic rate, which in turn speeds up all the other functions in your body including your heart rate and nervous system function.
The exact cause of Graves disease is not clearly understood though experts believe there are a number of factors involved including heredity and gender though researchers have not been able to find a specific gene or genes that may be involved. Many experts also believe that significant trauma or emotional stress can trigger Graves disease, especially in people that are susceptible. Pregnancy is another factor that is believed to contribute to the onset of Graves disease as pregnancy has an affect on the thyroid gland. Also, up to 30% of the women diagnosed with Graves disease have been pregnant with in the 72 months before they developed symptoms which implies that pregnancy may trigger the disease in some women. Some feel that infection may also contribute to the onset of Graves disease though there have been no studies directly linking an infection to the disease.
Most people diagnosed with Graves disease manifest symptoms related to hyperthyroidism including the development of a goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid gland. Other symptoms include irritability and nervousness as well as trouble sleeping. Because Graves disease affects all your body functions you will also have a rapid heart rate that may or may not be irregular, and as your metabolism is increased there are a variety of symptoms you may experience including an intolerance to heat, increased perspiration and weight loss with out changing your diet. Most women with Graves disease also experience changes in their menstrual cycle.
Thee are currently 3 standard methods for treating Graves disease. The first is the use of anti thyroid medications. There are two that are approved for use in the United States, Methimazole and Propylthiovracil. Both medications inhibit the production of the thyroid hormones. However, these medications are not approved for use in pregnant women. Another method called Radioactive iodine or RAI is a type of iodine that can be taken in pill form. It works by destroying thyroid cells therefore there are less thyroid hormones produced. The main draw back with this method is that though it cures your overactive thyroid chances are you’ll need to take thyroid replacement medications for the rest of your life. If these options are not effective your Dr may recommend surgery to remove your thyroid gland. There are risks associated with this surgery due to the proximity of your vocal cords and parathyroid glands. After surgery you will need to take thyroid replacement therapy for the rest of your life.
Graves disease is rarely life threatening, however, left untreated it can lead to severe complications even death.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.