Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease in which the overactivity of the thyroid gland causes the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism).
A number of conditions can cause hyperthyroidism, but Graves' disease is the most common.1 The disease can affect adolescents and is most often diagnosed among women under 40 years old, but can also be found in men.
If left untreated, Graves' disease can have a major negative impact on a person's mental and physical state.
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You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on Graves' disease
Here are some key points on Graves' disease. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Graves' disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.
- The disease is also the most common type autoimmune disease in the US.2
- It is more common in women under the age of 40, but can also be found in men.
- Graves' disease affects an estimated 2-3% of the world's population.3
- The disease can be passed down through families, but its inheritance patterns remain unclear.4
- The disease is named after Sir Robert Graves, an Irish Doctor, who first described the condition in 1835.5
What is Graves' disease
Graves' disease was originally known as "exophthalmic goiter" but is now named after Sir Robert Graves, who first described the condition in 1835.
The disease affects the thyroid gland, which is the butterfly-shaped organ located at the base of the neck just below the Adam's apple. It is a critical component of the endocrine system, and regulates a person's metabolism by releasing hormones into the bloodstream.
Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder, and the most common one of its kind in the US. An autoimmune disorder is the body's immune system mistakenly identifying healthy cells as foreign invaders and attacking them.
As a result of this, the thyroid gland overproduces hormones, which go on to affect various aspects of the body.
Causes of Graves' disease
Unfortunately, scientists are still yet to pinpoint an exact cause of Graves' disease. We know the body's immune system is somehow tricked by the antibody associated with Graves' disease to attack the thyroid gland, causing hyperthyroidism.
There is research to suggest Graves' disease may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. For example, you are much more likely to develop the disease if you smoke.
The thyroid functions are regulated by the pituitary gland, which is located below the brain and behind the sinus cavities. The onset of Graves' disease produces a similar antibody - the thyrotropin receptor antibody (TRAb) - which acts very much like the pituitary gland.6
Somehow, the TRAb tricks the body, allowing it to override the normal process of the thyroid and therefore causing hyperthyroidism.
A family history of Graves' disease is also likely to increase the chance of developing the condition although the inheritance pattern of the condition is unknown.
Symptoms of Graves' disease
The overproduction of thyroid hormones can have a variety of effects on the body due to the important role these hormones play to regulate a person's metabolism.
The onset of Graves' disease can have a number of effects on the body.
The influx of thyroid hormones can increase these processes, symptoms of this include:
- Increased sweating
- Weight loss
- Hand tremors
- An irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter).
One distinct feature of Graves' disease, compared with other causes of hyperthyroidism, is its effects on the eyes. Graves' disease is the only type of hyperthyroidism that is associated with the swelling and inflammation of the eye tissue.
Graves' eye disease is also known as ophthalmopathy (exophthalmos) and is a common symptom of patients with Graves's disease with 30% of patients suffering from the condition.7 In this instance, the eyes become painful, red and watery. Patients may also experience extreme sensitivity to sunlight and blurred vision.
On the next page we look at the tests, diagnosis and treatments for Graves' disease.