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Thyroid Eye Disease: A Serious Health Concern for Hyperthyroid Patients
Patients with thyroid disorders are often all too aware of the fact that these conditions can cause a broad spectrum of physical and mental symptoms. From anxiety attacks to coarse hair, the consequences of even slight dysfunction of the inch-long thyroid gland can be severe and wide-ranging.
Still, many thyroid patients remain unaware of a relatively rare but potentially dangerous side effect of excessively fast thyroid function: an eye disorder known to doctors as Graves' orbitopathy, more commonly referred to as thyroid eye disease. We’ll take a look at the causes and origins of this disorder, its chief symptoms, and traditional and emerging treatment options.
What is Thyroid Eye Disease?
Thyroid eye disease is a condition that affects as many as half of all patients with the type of hyperthyroidism known as Graves’ disease. In some cases, patients who develop thyroid eye disease do not meet all of the diagnostic criteria for hyperthyroidism; however, these stand-alone cases of thyroid eye disease are relatively rare.
Researchers have not yet been able to uncover the reason why so many patients with Graves’ hyperthyroidism also develop thyroid eye disease. At the current juncture, the persistent link between Graves’ disease and thyroid eye disease has not yet been explained.
Thyroid eye disease is an autoimmune disorder that impacts the tissues of the eyes and the eyelids. Like other autoimmune disorders, thyroid eye disease causes the body to attack itself. In this disease, there is an adverse reaction that occurs between the fatty tissues of the eye and a specific class of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. As a result, the eyeballs are literally pushed out of their sockets.
Patients with thyroid eye disease often experience chronic, painful inflammation of the eyelids. This can also result in the characteristic “bug-eyed” appearance that is one of the chief hallmarks of the disease. Patients often report extreme sensitivity to conditions such as wind or sun.
The constant pain and irritation experienced by patients with thyroid eye disease can be difficult to cope with. In addition, some patients feel self-conscious about their altered appearance in the wake of the eye bulging that is the most common physical sign of the disease.
For some patients who have been more severely impacted, thyroid eye disease can result in impaired vision. This occurs when the inflammation of the eyes results in double vision or blurred vision. Although this symptom does not impact all patients with thyroid eye disease, it can seriously limit the mobility and independence of those who experience it.
At the current juncture, no reliable test exists to check for thyroid eye disease. Instead, physicians typically rely on the identification and analysis of the presenting symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. However, progress is being made towards developing a reliable clinical test for the disease, which could prove to be useful in prevention efforts.
Treatment and Prognosis
Although no “cure” exists for thyroid eye disease, doctors have developed a wide array of methods for managing the disorder and treating the most challenging symptoms. Like many other disorders that are associated with an underlying diagnosis of thyroid disease, the single most important aspect of treating thyroid eye disease is ensuring that patients adhere strictly to their prescribed treatment regimen. If the underlying hyperthyroidism is not well controlled, it is more likely that the symptoms of thyroid eye disease will be severe.
Increasing numbers of patients with serious cases of thyroid eye disease are opting for surgical treatment options. New procedures can eliminate much of the eye bulging that many patients find disagreeable. This eliminates the aesthetic problems associated with the disorder, but it also eliminates some of the pain and irritation, as well. Surgical intervention is a good option in cases in which patients suffer from severe inflammation.
Despite the seriousness of the disorder, the prognosis for thyroid eye disease is typically fairly good. If the underlying hyperthyroidism is well-controlled with adherence to a prescription regimen, and no further complications occur, the worst of the symptoms of the disorder will usually recede within two years.
If you have hyperthyroidism and you have experienced dryness, itching, or inflammation of the eyes, talk to your doctor about the possibility that you may be developing thyroid eye disease.
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