What is Graves’ disease? Definition

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid gland that results in the overproduction of the thyroid hormones and often its enlargement. It is also referred to as the toxic diffuse goiter.

This disease is named after Dr. Robert Graves, who first described it as early back in 1835. It is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. You should know that hyperthyroidism is a condition and Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease, responsible for that condition.

Symptoms are typical with the eye manifestation of exophthalmos being very characteristic. About 80% of people with this disease develop eye disease symptoms.

The cause of Graves’ disease though not clear is believed to be of genetic or environmental origin and certain risk factors make you more prone to develop this disease.

Symptoms can lead the physician to diagnose this condition and confirmation of Graves’ disease is done through blood tests and radioiodine uptake.

Treatment revolves around three options, which include radioiodine therapy, medications, and thyroid surgery.

Are Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism the same?

Hyperthyroidism is a condition while Graves’ disease is the cause. It is an autoimmune system disorder that results in an overactive thyroid gland with the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism).

There are several causes that contribute to the development of hyperthyroidism. Graves’ disease is the most common cause. In hyperthyroidism, the overactive thyroid gland produces excessive thyroid hormones

How serious is Graves’ disease? Can it kill you?

If Graves’ disease is not treated, hyperthyroidism can aggravate and lead to serious and life-threatening consequences. The effects include:

  • It can damage the heart and lead to arrhythmias (rapid and irregular heart rhythm). It can affect the heart muscles causing heart weakness and affecting its function to pump blood. This can lead to congestive heart failure.
  • Too much of thyroid hormones circulating in the blood as in untreated hyperthyroidism can cause bones to become brittle and weak. This is because excessive thyroid hormones interfere with the absorption of calcium and its incorporation in the bones by the body.
  • Thyroid storm, also referred to as accelerated hyperthyroidism or thyrotoxic crisis is by far the most dangerous complication of Graves’ disease. It occurs due to the sudden and severe increase of thyroid hormone levels triggered by certain factors. Its symptoms include fever, profuse sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, arrhythmias, severe hypotension, and coma. It can be fatal even under emergency care.
  • Graves’ disease developing during pregnancy can cause serious repercussions for the mother and baby. It can cause miscarriage, premature birth, thyroid dysfunction in the baby, reduced fetal growth, heart failure in the mother, and preeclampsia.

Can Graves’ disease be cured?

No, Graves’ disease cannot be cured. Once you have it, you’ll always have it. However, it can be treated and controlled. Thyroid medications, radioactive iodine, and if required surgery can control hyperthyroidism and keep the levels of thyroid hormones within the normal range.

But, the underlying cause of Graves’ disease, that of the thyroid-stimulating antibodies generated by the immune system, persists.

Occasionally, the antibodies may recede with thyroid medication and the disease may go into remission following which the medicines are discontinued. But, the antibodies may return and there can be a relapse.

What are Graves’ disease antibodies?

The immune system of the body protects it from various invading organisms and toxins by producing antibodies that fight the invading agent. But, at times it fails to identify the invading agent and mistakenly attacks the tissues or the organs of the body itself.

This gives rise to diseases or conditions, which are referred to as autoimmune diseases. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease in which the autoimmune system produces thyroid-stimulating autoantibodies (TSAb’s) that activate the thyrotropin receptor (TSHR).

This leads to chronic inflammation of the thyroid (thyroiditis), tissue damage, and disruption of thyroid function. There is excessive production of thyroid hormones, which gives rise to hyperthyroidism.

In the diagnosis of Graves’ disease, laboratory tests are done to detect the presence and measure the number of specific thyroid autoantibodies in the blood.

How common is Graves’ disease? Statistics

  • Graves’s disease usually presents itself in children and adolescents.
  • According to the Graves’ Disease & Thyroid Foundation, this disease affects up to 3 percent of the U. S. population, that is, nearly 10 million people.
  • It affects 2 to 5% of the female population at some time.
  • The incident ratio of females to males is between 5:1 and 10:1 (mean 7:1).
  • It can occur at any time of your life but has a peak incidence between the ages of 20 and 40 years of age.
  • The hereditary component plays a very significant role.

Do Graves’ disease symptoms come and go?

Yes, Graves’ disease symptoms can come and go. When the disease goes into remission with treatment and the thyroid hormone levels have stabilized within the normal range, the hyperthyroid symptoms go away. If a relapse occurs, the symptoms reappear.

It may take as long as 6 months for your thyroid hormone levels to come to normal and stabilize with treatment.

Why treat Graves’ disease?

Treating Graves’ disease is essential because untreated, it can cause complications, which can be fatal.

Complications can include a thyroid storm, which if left untreated can cause death in 50% to 90% of the cases. Even with early treatment, the mortality rate is around 20%.

Other complications of untreated Graves’ disease include cardiac arrhythmias, congestive cardiac failure, and osteoporosis. Treating this disease is therefore essential.