Graves’ Disease: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

What Is Graves’ Disease? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Graves’ Disease: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

If Graves’ disease isn’t treated it can cause numerous complications. These can include:

Heart disorders In some people, the disease can cause changes in heart rhythm, including atrial fibrillation, changes in heart structure, changes in the functioning of heart muscles, and congestive heart failure.

Thyroid storm This life-threatening complication of Graves’ disease involves a sudden increase in thyroid hormones.

A thyroid storm is a rare event, but it can result in heart failure and pulmonary edema (a buildup of fluid in the lungs).

It can also cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, seizures, jaundice, very low blood pressure, and coma. In the event of a thyroid storm, immediate medical attention is required.

Pregnancy problems Miscarriage, preterm birth, poor fetal growth, fetal thyroid dysfunction, maternal heart failure, and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) are all possible complications of Graves’ disease during pregnancy. Graves’ disease often improves during the first few months after childbirth, but symptoms can become worse later on. (4)

Brittle bones Graves’ disease can inhibit the body’s ability to incorporate calcium into the bones. This can lead to osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak, porous bones.

Fertility problems Because Graves’ disease can interfere with the menstrual cycle, roughly half of women with Graves’ disease will have trouble getting pregnant.

Learn More About Graves’ Disease During Pregnancy

Getting a Graves’ Disease Diagnosis

A diagnosis of Graves’ disease is generally made on the basis of symptoms and confirmed with laboratory tests. (5) During the physical exam, in addition to asking you about your symptoms, your doctor will ly measure your pulse and blood pressure, examine your eyes and thyroid gland, check your reflexes, and test you for a tremor.

Lab tests to measure the amount of thyroid hormones in the blood include:

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
  • Free T4 (thyroxine) hormone
  • Free T3 (triiodothyronine)

Your doctor may also order thyroid antibody tests, which are used to distinguish autoimmune thyroid conditions from other forms of thyroid disease. (6)

Some of the other laboratory and imaging tests that may be done to diagnose Graves’ disease include:

Radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU) In RAIU testing, a person is given a small amount of radioactive iodine, either as a pill or an injection.

Several to 24 hours later, the amount of iodine taken up by the thyroid gland is measured using a special camera.

The thyroid gland normally absorbs most of the iodine in your body, and the goal of this test is to determine how quickly the thyroid gland takes in the radioactive iodine. In Graves’ disease, a higher-than-normal iodine uptake would be expected. (7)

Ultrasound An ultrasound can show if your thyroid gland is larger than normal or has abnormal lumps or nodules. (8) Ultrasounds are more commonly used to diagnose thyroid problems in pregnant women and in others for whom is it unsafe to conduct the radioactive iodine uptake test.

Other imaging scans CT scans and MRIs are often used to diagnose Graves’ ophthalmopathy.


NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders)

Graves’ Disease: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

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Graves’ Disease

Graves’ Disease: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

Graves’ disease is a disorder of the body’s immune system. The disease causes thyroid hormones to be over-produced, resulting in a condition called hyperthyroidism. This term means that the body has too much thyroid hormone. In fact, the most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease.

What is the thyroid gland?

Located in the lower front of the neck, this butterfly-shaped gland produces thyroid hormones. Such hormones help the body to stay warm, use energy, and keep organs such as the brain and heart working as they should. These processes are called your metabolism.

What causes Graves’ disease?

Graves’ disease can be set off by a process in the body’s immune system. In most cases, the immune system protects the body from foreign substances viruses and bacteria. It destroys such substances with antibodies. These are produced by blood cells called lymphocytes. In certain people, however, lymphocytes make antibodies against their own tissues, causing damage.

Graves’ disease occurs when antibodies connect to the thyroid cells’ surfaces. The antibodies stimulate cells to overproduce thyroid hormones, resulting in an overactive thyroid.

Emotional stress can trigger Graves’ disease in some patients. Most people with Graves’ disease, however, report no specific stressful events.

What are the symptoms of Graves’ disease?

In hyperthyroidism, every function in your body can speed up. Some symptoms of hyperthyroidism include a racing heart, irritability, nervousness, hand tremors, and weakness of muscles. Other symptoms include:

  • Goiter: This is another name for an enlarged thyroid gland. It may appear as swelling in the front of the neck. Goiters caused by Graves’ disease (diffuse thyrotoxic goiters) can be small or large. Goiters may cause difficulty in swallowing, cause you to cough (if it is large enough), and cause sleeping difficulties.
  • Eye diseases: Such diseases include Graves’ ophthalmopathy, which is the bulging of the eyes and the swelling of tissue around the eyes. Symptoms in the eyes can start about 6 months before Graves’ disease is diagnosed. (However, these can occur without the thyroid ever becoming abnormal, as well as years before or after the hyperthyroidism.) Early signs of eye problems include inflamed eyes or double vision.
  • Skin disease: A lumpy, reddish thickening of the skin in front of the shins can form in rare cases. The condition is known as pretibial myxedema. Most often, the condition is painless and relatively mild. However, it can cause pain and usually is treated and diagnosed by a dermatologist.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/05/2017.


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