Heart palpitations? Anxious? Shaky hands? For introverts, this may just sound like that feeling you get when you’re sitting in front of a cake and everyone starts singing Happy Birthday. However, you may have these symptoms and not know why. Graves’ disease is one possible explanation. To help explain Graves’ disease and other thyroid disorders, we spoke with Rosemarie Metzger, MD, an endocrine surgeon at Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ.
Signs of Graves’ disease
“People with Graves’ disease can have varying symptoms. Some people may experience more symptoms than others. There are a few common symptoms when seen together, that can lead a doctor to further investigation,” explained Dr. Metzger.
- Feeling jittery
- Always feeling hot
- Eye problems, including itchy eyes or even protrusion of the eyes
- Feeling tired and trouble sleeping
- Muscle weakness
- Tremors in hands
- Unexplained weight loss
- Accelerated heart rate (tachycardia)
What is Graves’ disease?
Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease, affecting the levels of thyroid hormone in your body. Specifically, the immune system makes an antibody called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin, which attaches to the thyroid cells and results in an overproduction of thyroid hormone. Dr. Metzger explained that too much of these hormones can be harmful to the body. “The overproduction of thyroid hormone can trigger heart arrhythmias. Bone density can also be affected. Excess thyroid hormone can accelerate bone breakdown and, and with time, can lead to thinning of bones.”
Graves’ disease is the most common form of hyperthyroidism, which is an overproduction of thyroid hormone. Hypothyroidism is the opposite, an underproduction of thyroid hormone. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the lower front of your neck. A healthy thyroid does a lot to regulate our comfort and bodily function. You will feel when your thyroid is not functioning properly, but it may not be obvious right away what is happening. If you consistently feel any of the symptoms listed in the last section, consult with your doctor.
Autoimmune diseases often run in families. “Someone in your family may have dealt with Graves’ disease or another autoimmune disease, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will,” said Dr. Metzger. Likewise, a family history free of autoimmune disease doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop it.
Can Graves’ disease be treated?
You don’t have to feel this way forever. The first step in treatment will include medication to control the overproduction of thyroid hormone so that you can feel better. Some people require an additional therapy. Dr. Metzger described two treatment options for Graves' disease.
- Thyroid surgery – The thyroid gland is removed entirely, eliminating the issue of overproduction.
- Radioactive iodine uptake – The patient is given pills which contain iodine, labeled with radioactivity. The iodine is absorbed by the thyroid, which then degenerates due to the radioactivity in the iodine. This is a non-surgical approach to shrinking or deactivating the gland and halting overproduction.
“Both treatments offer unique benefits. Work with your endocrinologist and endocrine surgeon to make the decision that is best for you,” said Dr. Metzger.
Hyperthyroidism is eliminated in both methods, leaving patients hypothyroid. Fortunately, hypothyroidism is easily treated with carefully dosed levels of thyroid hormone, prescribed by your doctor, to keep thyroid hormone levels normal. Once your body is receiving the appropriate levels of thyroid hormone, the symptoms you were experiencing will fade.
Start feeling better
Life is a joy when you’re healthy and well. The symptoms of Graves’ disease can make it very difficult to go about your day, but they don’t have to be your reality. If you are feeling any of the symptoms listed above, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your options.