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What Is Graves Disease?

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What is Graves' disease?

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease which affects the thyroid gland. It is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism (increased activity in the thyroid gland). The thyroid gland is where the body produces antibodies and controls the rate the body uses energy.

With this autoimmune disease the thyroid becomes overactive which causes the body to work faster than it should do. This can cause the following symptoms:

• Weight loss
• Bulging eyes, also known as exophthalmos
• Feelings of nervousness
• Excessive amount of sweat

How is it diagnosed?

This disease is diagnosed using a simple blood test which will highlight if the body has an overactive thyroid. The next step is to look for antibodies to the thyroid, in particular long-acting, thyroid-stimulating antibodies.

The person will also have an ultrasound scan of their thyroid to check for adenomas (benign tumors) or more serious types of growth in the gland.

What treatment is available?

Graves’ autoimmune disease is treated by trying to reduce the activity of the thyroid tissue to mitigate the hyperthyroidism. This can be achieved in three ways:

1. Surgery – Removing some of the thyroid tissue. The difficulty with this method of treatment is the level of accuracy required in how much of the thyroid is removed. Removing too much will lead to an underactive thyroid, and removing too little will not cure the patient. The operation itself has complications as there is a risk of damaging the nerves in the neck and the operation will leave a scar. If done correctly, surgery can be a good treatment for Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism

2. Drug treatment – Using drugs to reduce the activity of the thyroid, effectively poisoning the thyroid gland. In order for this treatment to be effective, the drugs have to be taken at regular intervals for a period of time.

3. Radiotherapy – Exposing the thyroid to radiotherapy in an attempt to reduce its activity.

Each treatment is considered to have advantages and disadvantages which will be discussed by a specialist so that a person with from Graves’ autoimmune disease can chose the best treatment for them.

Dr. Peter Saul, MB ChB DRCOG DCH MRCGP, Allergy Specialist


10006 Published September 2011

Revised November 2012

Review Scheduled November 2013

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