What is Graves’ disease?

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 like 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.

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