The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ found in the center of the neck, below the Adam's apple. It creates and stores hormones that control the body's heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism (how the body makes energy from food). Graves' disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, which means that the thyroid gland produces more hormones than the body needs. It is caused by an autoimmune disorder, where the body's immune system destroys its own tissues.
Symptoms of Graves' disease may include:
- Swelling, bulging, or inflammation around the eyes
- Weight loss
- Restlessness or anxiety
- Increased appetite
- Rapid heart beat
- Changes in sex drive
- Fatigue and/or muscle weakness
- Frequent bowel movements
- Double vision
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods in female patients
- Heat intolerance
Graves' disease is caused by problems in the immune system. Antibodies that normally protect the body against infection attack the tissues of the thyroid gland, causing it to grow and overproduce hormones.
The disease is often hereditary, which means it is an inherited condition from one's family. Women are much more likely to get Graves' disease than men.
Things that may trigger the autoimmune disorder that leads to Graves' disease include stress, smoking, radiation, certain medications, and viruses.
During a physical examination, your doctor may feel the enlarged thyroid in your neck. He or she may want to perform one or more of these tests to diagnose Graves' disease:
- Blood tests to measure the amount of thyroid hormones and/or antibodies in your blood
- A thyroid scan, which is an image taken of the thyroid gland after you have swallowed a small amount of radioactive iodine. Because the thyroid naturally uses iodine to produce some of its hormones, it absorbs the radioactive substance and allows the image to be made. The image will show if the thyroid gland is enlarged and overactive.
- Anti-thyroid drugs may lower the production of thyroid hormones. In order to control the rapid heart rate, sweating, and anxiety caused by an overactive thyroid gland, your doctor may prescribe heart medications known as beta-blockers. To reduce eye irritation and swelling, he or she may prescribe Prednisone, a steroid medication which suppresses the immune system.
- A doctor may use radioactive iodine to destroy part or all of the thyroid gland, and make it unable to produce thyroid hormones. The patient will need to take replacement thyroid hormones for the rest of his or her life.
- In a subtotal thyroidectomy, a surgeon removes most of the thyroid gland. The patient will need to take replacement thyroid hormones for the rest of his or her life.
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