A Basic Understanding of Graves’ Disease

November 12, 2012

A Basic Understanding of Graves’ Disease

In the early 19th century Sir Robert Graves became the first person to describe one of the most common thyroid problems, which thereafter became known as Graves’ disease. It is the main known cause of hyperthyroidism, which is the name for the condition when the thyroid gland produces too much of metabolism controlling hormone. It is a condition, which is easy to treat once diagnosed and sometimes even goes into remission months or years later. If left untreated, serious complications can occur and in extreme cases it can be fatal.

The thyroid gland produces and secretes a hormone, which controls each person’s metabolism. This means it controls the speed that food is converted into energy by the body. People suffering from hyperthyroidism are experiencing their thyroid secreting excessive levels of the hormone causing their metabolism to speed up. This results in symptoms including weight loss, a pounding heart, excessive sweating and trembling. The thyroid is instructed by a thyroid-stimulating hormone, TSH for short, released by the pituitary gland. Individuals suffering from Graves’ disease have a problem with their immune system causing it to produce anti-bodies mimicking TSH. The thyroid is stimulated by these false signals and begins to produce excessive amounts of the hormone.

It is not yet known exactly what makes the immune system act in this way but it has been suggested that it is hereditary. For example, studies on identical twins have revealed that if one twin contracts Graves’ disease, there is a 20% likely hood that the other twin will also get it. Studies have also shown that women are more likely to contract Graves’ disease than men. There is not a single gene that is the cause of Graves’ disease but rather something in the genes is triggered at some point in their life by environmental factors such as stress causing the disease to develop.

One complication that is thought to occur from Graves’ disease is problems with the eye. The condition, known as exophthalmos is very rare and can cause inflamed and swollen eye muscles, which can result in the eyeballs protruding from the sockets. Those who develop this condition complain about their eyes feeling achy, dry and irritated. In extreme cases, partial blindness can occur thanks to the swollen eye muscle putting a great deal of pressure on the optic nerve. Studies revealed that smokers with Graves’ disease were more likely to develop eye problems than non-smokers. Another rare complication is a skin condition, whereby the skin in front of the tibia becomes thickened, red and bumpy. It is not usually painful, however and is not serious. Both the skin condition and the eye condition have not been proved to be a direct symptom or complication of Graves’ disease. It is possible that they could occur due to a completely separate, although closely related disorder as neither of them necessarily occur at the time of the onset of Graves’ disease, neither do they correlate with the seriousness of the disease.


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