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Graves' disease
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 E05.0
ICD-9 242.0
OMIM 275000
MedlinePlus 000358
eMedicine med/929 ped/899
MeSH D006111

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease. It most commonly affects the thyroid, frequently causing it to enlarge to twice its size or more (goiter), become overactive, with related hyperthyroid symptoms such as increased heartbeat, muscle weakness, disturbed sleep, and irritability. It can also affect the eyes, causing bulging eyes (proptosis). It affects other systems of the body, including the skin, heart, circulation and nervous system.

It affects up to 2% of the female population, sometimes appears after childbirth, and has a female:male incidence of 5:1 to 10:1. It has a strong hereditary component; when one identical twin has Graves' disease, the other twin will have it 25% of the time. Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke is associated with the eye manifestations but not the thyroid manifestations.

Diagnosis is usually made on the basis of symptoms, although thyroid hormone tests may be useful, particularly to monitor treatment.[1]



Graves' disease owes its name to the Irish doctor Robert James Graves,[2] who described a case of goiter with exophthalmos in 1835.[3] However, the German Karl Adolph von Basedow independently reported the same constellation of symptoms in 1840.[4][5] As a result, on the European Continent, the terms Basedow's syndrome[6], or Basedow's disease[7] are more common than Graves' disease.[6][8]

Graves' disease[6][7] has also been called exophthalmic goiter.[7]

Less commonly, it has been known as Parry's disease,[6][7] Begbie's disease, Flajani's disease, Flajani-Basedow syndrome, and Marsh's disease.[6] The names Grave's disease and Parry's disease were based also on other pioneer investigators of the disorder, namely: Robert James Graves and Caleb Hillier Parry, respectively. The rest of the other names for the disease were derived from James Begbie, Giuseppe Flajani, and Henry Marsh.[6] The other names are from several earlier reports that exist but were not widely circulated. For example, cases of goiter with exophthalmos were published by the Italians Giuseppe Flajina[9] and Antonio Giuseppe Testa,[10] in 1802 and 1810, respectively.[11] Prior to these, Caleb Hillier Parry,[12] a notable provincial physician in England of the late 18th century (and a friend of Edward Miller-Gallus),[13] described a case in 1786. This case was not published until 1825, but still 10 years ahead of Graves.[14]

However, fair credit for the first description of Graves' disease goes to the 12th century Persian physician Sayyid Ismail al-Jurjani,[15] who noted the association of goiter and exophthalmos in his "Thesaurus of the Shah of Khwarazm", the major medical dictionary of its time.[6][16][17]


Graves' disease Symptoms

Graves' disease may present clinically with one of the following characteristic signs:

The two signs that are truly 'diagnostic' of Graves' disease (i.e., not seen in other hyperthyroid conditions) are exophthalmos and non-pitting edema (pretibial myxedema). Goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland and is of the diffuse type (i.e., spread throughout the gland). Diffuse goiter may be seen with other causes of hyperthyroidism, although Graves' disease is the most common cause of diffuse goiter. A large goiter will be visible to the naked eye, but a smaller goiter (very mild enlargement of the gland) may be detectable only by physical exam. Occasionally, goiter is not clinically detectable but may be seen only with CT or ultrasound examination of the thyroid.

Another sign of Graves' disease is hyperthyroidism, i.e., overproduction of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. Normothyroidism is also seen, and occasionally also hypothyroidism, which may assist in causing goiter (though it is not the cause of the Graves disease). Hyperthyroidism in Graves' disease is confirmed, as with any other cause of hyperthyroidism, by measuring elevated blood levels of free (unbound) T3 and T4.

Other useful laboratory measurements in Graves' disease include thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH, usually low in Graves' disease due to negative feedback from the elevated T3 and T4), and protein-bound iodine (elevated). Thyroid-stimulating antibodies may also be detected serologically.

Biopsy to obtain histiological testing is not normally required but may be obtained if thyroidectomy is performed.

Differentiating two common forms of hyperthyroidism such as Graves' disease and Toxic multinodular goiter is important to determine proper treatment. Measuring TSH-receptor antibodies with the h-TBII assay has been proven efficient and was the most practical approach found in one study.[18]

Eye disease

Thyroid-associated ophthalmopathy is one of the most typical symptoms of Graves' disease. It is known by a variety of terms, the most common being Graves' ophthalmopathy. Thyroid eye disease is an inflammatory condition, which affects the orbital contents including the extraocular muscles and orbital fat. It is almost always associated with Graves' disease but may rarely be seen in Hashimoto's thyroiditis, primary hypothyroidism, or thyroid cancer.

The ocular manifestations that are relatively specific to Grave's disease include soft tissue inflammation, proptosis (protrusion of one or both globes of the eyes), corneal exposure, and optic nerve compression. Also seen, if the patient is hyperthyroid, (i.e., has too much thryoid hormone) are more general manifestations, which are due to hyperthyroidism itself and which may be seen in any conditions that cause hyperthyroidism (such as toxic multinodular goiter or even thyroid poisoning). These more general symptoms include lid retraction, lid lag, and a delay in the downward excursion of the upper eyelid, during downward gaze.

It is believed that fibroblasts in the orbital tissues may express the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone receptor (TSHr). This may explain why one autoantibody to the TSHr can cause disease in both the thyroid and the eyes.[19]

Classification of Graves Eye Disease

Mnemonic: "NO SPECS":[20]

Class 0: No signs or symptoms

Class 1: Only signs (limited to upper lid retraction and stare, with or without lid lag)

Class 2: Soft tissue involvement (oedema of conjunctivae and lids, conjunctival injection, etc)

Class 3: Proptosis

Class 4: Extraocular muscle involvement (usually with diplopia)

Class 5: Corneal involvement (primarily due to lagophthalmos)

Class 6: Sight loss (due to optic nerve involvement)

Treatment specific to eye problems

  • For mild disease - artificial tears, steroids (to reduce chemosis)
  • For moderate disease - lateral tarsorrhaphy
  • For severe disease - orbital decompression or retro-orbital radiation

Other Graves' disease symptoms

Some of the most typical symptoms of Graves' Disease are included in the following list. All but the eye-related problems and goitre are due to the effects of too much thyroid hormone, and are seen in other hyperthyroid states, including simple thyroid hormone poisoning:

  • Increased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Mental impairment, memory lapses, diminished attention span
  • Decreased concentration
  • Nervousness, agitation
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Erratic behavior
  • Emotional lability
  • Brittle nails
  • Abnormal breast enlargement
  • Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
  • Protruding eyeballs
  • Diplopia (double vision)

Incidence and epidemiology

Scan of affected thyroid before and after radioiodine therapy.

The disease occurs most frequently in women (7:1 compared to men). It occurs most often in middle age (most commonly in the third to fifth decades of life), but is not uncommon in adolescents, during pregnancy, during menopause, or in people over age 50. There is a marked family preponderance, which has led to speculation that there may be a genetic component. To date, no clear genetic defect has been found that would point at a monogenic cause.


Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body produces antibodies to the receptor for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). (Antibodies to thyroglobulin and to the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 may also be produced.)

These antibodies cause hyperthyroidism because they bind to the TSH receptor and chronically stimulate it. The TSH receptor is expressed on the follicular cells of the thyroid gland (the cells that produce thyroid hormone), and the result of chronic stimulation is an abnormally high production of T3 and T4. This in turn causes the clinical symptoms of hyperthyroidism, and the enlargement of the thyroid gland visible as goiter.

The infiltrative exophthalmos that is frequently encountered has been explained by postulating that the thyroid gland and the extraocular muscles share a common antigen which is recognized by the antibodies. Antibodies binding to the extraocular muscles would cause swelling behind the eyeball.

The "orange peel" skin has been explained by the infiltration of antibodies under the skin, causing an inflammatory reaction and subsequent fibrous plaques.

There are 3 types of autoantibodies to the TSH receptor currently recognized:

  • TSI, Thyroid stimulating immunoglobulins: these antibodies (mainly IgG) act as LATS (Long Acting Thyroid Stimulants), activating the cells in a longer and slower way than TSH, leading to an elevated production of thyroid hormone.
  • TGI, Thyroid growth immunoglobulins: these antibodies bind directly to the TSH receptor and have been implicated in the growth of thyroid follicles.
  • TBII, Thyrotrophin Binding-Inhibiting Immunoglobulins: these antibodies inhibit the normal union of TSH with its receptor. Some will actually act as if TSH itself is binding to its receptor, thus inducing thyroid function. Other types may not stimulate the thyroid gland, but will prevent TSI and TSH from binding to and stimulating the receptor.

Another effect of hyperthyroidism is bone loss from osteoporosis, caused by an increased excretion of calcium and phosphorus in the urine and stool. The effects can be minimized if the hyperthyroidism is treated early. Thyrotoxicosis can also augment calcium levels in the blood by as much as 25%. This can cause stomach upset, excessive urination, and impaired kidney function.[21]


The trigger for auto-antibody production is not known. There appears to be a genetic predisposition for Graves' disease, suggesting that some people are more prone than others to develop TSH receptor activating antibodies due to a genetic cause. HLA DR (especially DR3) appears to play a significant role.[22]

Since Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease which appears suddenly, often quite late in life, it is thought that a viral or bacterial infection may trigger antibodies which cross-react with the human TSH receptor (a phenomenon known as antigenic mimicry, also seen in some cases of type I diabetes).

One possible culprit is the bacterium Yersinia enterocolitica (a cousin of Yersinia pestis, the agent of bubonic plague). However, although there is indirect evidence for the structural similarity between the bacteria and the human thyrotropin receptor, direct causative evidence is limited.[22] Yersinia seems not to be a major cause of this disease, although it may contribute to the development of thyroid autoimmunity arising for other reasons in genetically susceptible individuals.[23] It has also been suggested that Y. enterocolitica infection is not the cause of auto-immune thyroid disease, but rather is only an associated condition; with both having a shared inherited susceptibility.[24] More recently the role for Y. enterocolitica has been disputed.[25]


Treatment of Graves' disease includes antithyroid drugs which reduce the production of thyroid hormone, radioiodine (radioactive iodine I-131), and thyroidectomy (surgical excision of the gland). As operating on a frankly hyperthyroid patient is dangerous, prior to thyroidectomy preoperative treatment with antithyroid drugs is given to render the patient "euthyroid" (i.e. normothyroid).

Treatment with antithyroid medications must be given for six months to two years, in order to be effective. Even then, upon cessation of the drugs, the hyperthyroid state may recur. Side effects of the antithyroid medications include a potentially fatal reduction in the level of white blood cells. Therapy with radioiodine is the most common treatment in the United States, whilst antithyroid drugs and/or thyroidectomy is used more often in Europe, Japan, and most of the rest of the world.

Antithyroid drugs

The main antithyroid drugs are carbimazole (in the UK), methimazole (in the US), and propylthiouracil/PTU. These drugs block the binding of iodine and coupling of iodotyrosines. The most dangerous side-effect is agranulocytosis (1/250, more in PTU); this is an idiosyncratic reaction which does not stop on cessation of drug. Others include granulocytopenia (dose dependent, which improves on cessation of the drug) and aplastic anemia. Patients on these medications should see a doctor if they develop sore throat or fever. The most common side effects are rash and peripheral neuritis. These drugs also cross the placenta and are secreted in breast milk. Lygole is used to block hormone synthesis before surgery.,

A randomized control trial testing single dose treatment for Graves found methimazole achieved euthyroid state more effectively after 12 weeks than did propylthyouracil (77.1% on methimazole 15 mg vs 19.4% in the propylthiouracil 150 mg groups).[26]

A study has shown no difference in outcome for adding thyroxine to antithyroid medication and continuing thyroxine versus placebo after antithyroid medication withdrawal. However two markers were found that can help predict the risk of recurrence. These two markers are a positive Thyroid Stimulating Hormone receptor antibody (TSHR-Ab) and smoking. A positive TSHR-Ab at the end of antithyroid drug treatment increases the risk of recurrence to 90% (sensitivity 39%, specificity 98%), a negative TSHR-Ab at the end of antithyroid drug treatment is associated with a 78% chance of remaining in remission. Smoking was shown to have an impact independent to a positive TSHR-Ab.[27]


Radioiodine (radioactive iodine-131) was developed in the early 1940s at the Mallinckrodt General Clinical Research Center. This modality is suitable for most patients, although some prefer to use it mainly for older patients. Indications for radioiodine are: failed medical therapy or surgery and where medical or surgical therapy are contraindicated. Hypothyroidism may be a complication of this therapy, but may be treated with thyroid hormones if it appears. Patients who receive the therapy must be monitored regularly with thyroid blood tests to ensure that they are treated with thyroid hormone before they become symptomatically hypothyroid. For some patients, finding the correct thyroid replacement hormone and the correct dosage may take many years and may be in itself a much more difficult task than is commonly understood.[citation needed]

Contraindications to RAI are pregnancy (absolute), ophthalmopathy (relative; it can aggravate thyroid eye disease), solitary nodules.

Disadvantages of this treatment are a high incidence of hypothyroidism (up to 80%) requiring eventual thyroid hormone supplementation in the form of a daily pill(s). The radio-iodine treatment acts slowly (over months to years) to destroy the thyroid gland, and Graves disease-associated hyperthyroidism is not cured in all persons by radioiodine, but has a relapse rate that depends on the dose of radioiodine which is administered.


This modality is suitable for young patients and pregnant patients. Indications are: a large goiter (especially when compressing the trachea), suspicious nodules or suspected cancer (to pathologically examine the thyroid) and patients with ophthalmopathy.

Both bilateral subtotal thyroidectomy and the Hartley-Dunhill procedure (hemithyroidectomy on one side and partial lobectomy on other side) are possible.

Advantages are: immediate cure and potential removal of carcinoma. Its risks are injury of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, hypoparathyroidism (due to removal of the parathyroid glands), hematoma (which can be life-threatening if it compresses the trachea) and scarring. Removal of the gland enables complete biopsy to be performed to have definite evidence of cancer anywhere in the thyroid. (Needle biopsies are not so accurate at predicting a benign state of the thyroid). No further treatment of the thyroid is required, unless cancer is detected. Radioiodine treatment may be done after surgery, to ensure that all remaining (potentially cancerous) thyroid cells (i.e., near the nerves to the vocal chords) are destroyed. Besides this, the only remaining treatment will be Synthroid, or thyroid replacement pills to be taken for the rest of patient's life.

Disadvantages are as follows. A scar is created across the neck just above the collar bone line. However, the scar is very thin, and can eventually recede and appear as nothing more than a crease in the neck.Patient may spend a night in hospital after the surgery, and endure the effects of total anesthesia (i.e., vomiting), as well as sore throat, raspy voice, cough from having a breathing tube stuck down the windpipe during surgery.[citation needed]

No treatment

If left untreated, more serious complications could result, including birth defects in pregnancy, increased risk of a miscarriage, and in extreme cases, death. Graves-Basedow disease is often accompanied by an increase in heart rate, which may lead to further heart complications including loss of the normal heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation), which may lead to stroke. If the eyes are proptotic (bulging) severely enough that the lids do not close completely at night, severe dryness will occur with a very high risk of a secondary corneal infection which could lead to blindness. Pressure on the optic nerve behind the globe can lead to visual field defects and vision loss as well.

Symptomatic treatment

β-blockers (such as propranolol) may be used to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system symptoms of tachycardia and nausea until such time as antithyroid treatments start to take effect. Pure beta blockers do not inhibit lid-retraction in the eyes, which is mediated by alpha adrenergic receptors.

Treatment of eye disease

Mild cases are treated with lubricant eye drops or non steroidal antiinflammatory drops. Severe cases threatening vision (Corneal exposure or Optic Nerve compression) are treated with steroids or orbital decompression. In all cases cessation of smoking is essential. Double vision can be corrected with prism glasses and surgery (the latter only when the process has been stable for a while).
Difficulty closing eyes can be treated with lubricant gel at night, or with tape on the eyes to enable full, deep sleep.
Orbital decompression can be performed to enable bulging eyes to retreat back into the head. Bone is removed from the skull behind the eyes, and space is made for the muscles and fatty tissue to fall back into the skull.

Eyelid surgery can be performed on upper and/or lower eyelids to reverse the effects of Graves on the eyelids. Eyelid muscles can become tight with Graves, making it impossible to close eyes all the way. Eyelid surgery involves an incision along the natural crease of the eyelid, and a scraping away of the muscle that holds the eyelid open. This makes the muscle weaker, which allows the eyelid to extend over the eyeball more effectively. Eyelid surgery helps reduce or eliminate dry eye symptoms.

Notable sufferers


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See also

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



From R.J. Graves, English physician


Graves' disease


Graves' disease (uncountable)

  1. (pathology) Hyperthyroidism accompanied by protrusion of the eyeballs.


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