Just the Jitters? Or Is It Graves’ Disease?

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Is your heart beating faster than normal? Having trouble sleeping? Feeling on edge for no clear reason? Maybe it’s just anxiety about a big work project. Or it could be a condition called Graves’ disease. 

What Is Graves’ Disease?

Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that sends the thyroid into overdrive. Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that makes thyroid hormones. These hormones help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles and other organs working right.  

When the thyroid is attacked by the immune system, the result is hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, causing the thyroid to produce more thyroid hormone than your body needs. 

Graves’ disease is the leading cause of hyperthyroidism in the U.S. and is much more common in women than men.  The condition is named after Robert Graves, an Irish doctor who first described it in the 19th century. 

Graves’ disease is the leading cause of hyperthyroidism in the U.S. and is much more common in women than men.

What Are the Symptoms of Graves’ Disease?

People with Graves’ disease often show signs of an overactive thyroid including:

More unusual symptoms include:

  • A reddish thickening of the skin on the shins, which is usually painless and mild
  • Red, inflamed or bulging eyes

How Is Graves’ Disease Diagnosed?

Just Jitters small

Your health care provider may suspect Graves’ disease based on your symptoms and what she uncovers during a physical exam. Tests that can confirm the diagnosis include:

  • Thyroid function tests: A blood sample is tested to see if it has the right amount of thyroid hormones.
  • Radioactive iodine uptake (RAIU): This test measures the amount of iodine the thyroid pulls from the bloodstream. If it takes up too much, you may have Graves’ disease. 
  • Antibody tests: A blood sample is sent to the lab to look for antibodies — substances that destroy foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses — that suggest Graves’ disease.

What Are My Treatment Options?

Based on your age, whether you are pregnant or have other medical conditions, your doctor will recommend a specific treatment. Together, you can decide which is right for you:

  • Antithyroid medicine: These drugs cause your thyroid to make less thyroid hormone. While not usually a permanent cure, the effects can last a long time after the medication is stopped. The most common is methimazole (MMI).
  • Radioiodine therapy: You take radioactive iodine, which destroys the thyroid gland cells that produce thyroid hormone. This will cure an overactive thyroid, but it’s likely you will develop hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and will need to take thyroid hormone.
  • Thyroid surgery: Most or all of the thyroid is removed. Post surgery, you will develop hypothyroidism and must take thyroid hormone for the rest of your life to replace what your body can no longer make. 

For fast relief, your doctor may recommend a drug called a beta blocker. Beta blockers work quickly to relieve unpleasant side effects like shaking, rapid heartbeat and nervousness. They don’t stop your thyroid from making too much too much thyroid hormone, but they can reduce these symptoms until another treatment takes effect.

What If I Don’t Treat My Graves’ Disease?

Without treatment, Graves’ disease can lead to:

  • Heart problems
  • Weak and brittle bones
  • “Thyroid storm,” a rare but life-threatening condition brought on by an overactive thyroid that is not treated. It can be triggered by trauma, surgery or infection
  • Problems with your menstrual cycle or fertility
  • During pregnancy, serious health problems for mother and baby

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.

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