Have you experienced problems with a rapid heartbeat, hair loss, dry skin, a feeling of fullness in your eyes, swelling in the front of your neck, weight loss, or brittle nails? All of these could be symptoms of Graves’ disease, and it is important to see your doctor for a complete health evaluation.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition where the body’s own antibodies start to attack the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located right below our Adam’s apple, and it helps regulate our metabolism. When the antibodies affect the thyroid in Graves’ disease, the thyroid becomes overactive and starts to produce too much thyroid hormone. This can cause weight loss, nails that break easily, swelling of the thyroid gland, and hair loss.
Sometimes the condition can affect the eyes. The muscles that control eye movements can begin to swell, pushing the eyes forward in the eye socket and causing eye bulging. The swelling can become so severe that patients can’t move their eyes.
Graves’ disease can also affect the heart and blood pressure. An over-active thyroid causes the heart to beat too fast. This can also increase the blood pressure. The heart has to work harder than normal, creating a risk of heart problems, like irregular heart beat and even heart attacks.
Fortunately, it is very easy to measure these antibodies. Doctors and other health care providers can order a simple blood test to see if the thyroid antibodies are present and in what amount. The most common antibody blood tests for Graves’ disease are for the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) antibodies and the TSH receptor binding antibodies. Some health care providers may also order tests to check for the thyroid peroxidase and thyroglobulin antibodies. Health care providers will sometimes do imaging tests such as an ultrasound or scintigraphy to make sure there are no other causes for the overactive thyroid.
Once the levels of the thyroid hormone and antibodies are determined, your health care provider will discuss several treatment options with you. The three main options include medication, radioactive iodine, and surgery. Medication is used to decrease the amount of thyroid hormone produced by the thyroid gland. Blood tests to measure your thyroid antibodies will be done regularly to make sure the medication is effective and isn’t making the thyroid hormone drop below normal.
In situations where medication doesn’t work, radioactive iodine to destroy the overactive thyroid cells is an option. The radioactive iodine is taken up by the thyroid in particular and is a very effective non-surgical treatment. Once the short course of treatment is done, your doctor or other provider will monitor the levels of antibodies in your blood to make sure that the treatment was effective. Since your thyroid doesn’t function after this treatment, you’ll usually take a thyroid hormone replacement.
Surgery to remove the thyroid, called a thyroidectomy, is the final option. Since there is no thyroid for the antibodies to attack, thyroid hormone is no longer produced in excess. There is more recovery time with surgery than the radiation treatment.
Measuring thyroid antibodies can be extremely helpful in diagnosing thyroid problems. If you suspect you have Graves’ disease or another thyroid problem, please contact your primary care provider today.