What Is Graves' Disease?

The location of the human thyroid.
The location of the human thyroid. SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Medical Specialties: Cardiology, Endocrinology, Family Medicine, Internal medicine, Pediatrics

Clinical Definition: Graves' disease is a syndrome in which a person has a thyroid gland that produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormone. This thyroid hormone controls bodily functions such as digestion, metabolism, body temperature and heart rate.

In Our Own Words: The thyroid gland, at the front of the neck, is crucial in regulating heart rate, metabolism, body temperature, digestion and other functions.

Graves' disease is not the same as hyperthyroidism, but Graves’ disease is an important cause of hyperthyroidism (or an overactive thyroid gland). Often, people with Graves' disease also have Graves' eye disease, which involves inflammation or even bulging out of the eyes (also known as exophthalmos).

In Graves’ disease, the body makes antibodies to – and mistakenly attacks – the thyroid gland, sending the thyroid gland into overdrive. This disorder runs in families and is much more common in women than in men. In addition to genes and gender, smoking and stress are potential predisposing factors. Hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease can lead to many problems, including bone loss and heart problems, if left untreated.

More Information About Graves' Disease

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder. With Graves' disease, the body produces antibodies that overstimulate thyroid hormone receptors in the thyroid.

When these thyroid hormone receptors are overstimulated, they produce too much thyroid hormone.

In other words, the result of Graves' disease is hyperthyroidism or increased levels of thyroid hormones in the blood stream. Hyperthyroidism is s blanket term for any pathological condition that increases thyroid levels in the blood.

Graves' disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, accounting for between 60 and 80 percent of all cases of hyperthyroidism.

Graves' disease affects about 1 percent of the population, with twice as many women than men affected with this condition.

Graves' ophthalmology, or bulging of the eyes, occurs in 80 percent of people with this condition. Goiter, or swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck, also occurs in a majority of people with this disease.

Because excess levels of thyroid hormones derange homeostatic mechanisms that affect your entire body, a variety of systemic effects are observed in patients with Graves' disease including the following:

Of note, thyroid storm kills about 20 to 50 percent of those it hits. Thyroid storm is a hypermetabolic process where your whole body goes into overdrive resulting in increases in blood pressure and heart rate as well as altered mental status.

Treating Graves' Disease

First, medications can be prescribed for this condition, including antithyroid medications, like methimazole and propylthiouracil.

Symptomatic treatment for Graves' disease includes drugs like beta-blockers, which lower blood pressure and heart rate, and calcium-channel blockers, which treat atrial fibrillation.

Second, radiotherapy can be administered. Radiotherapy is often administered after medications.

Third, the thyroid gland can be surgically removed.

People who receive radiotherapy or surgery need thyroid hormone replacement after these treatments.


The Cleveland Clinic. "Thyroid Disease Description." Diseases & Conditions 2013. Accessed Aug. 2013.

Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "Hyperthyroidism" 2013. Accessed Aug. 2013.

American Academy of Family Physicians. "Hyperthyroidism: Complications." Nov. 2010 Accessed Aug. 2013.

Continue Reading