Understanding Graves' Disease -- Diagnosis and Treatment
How Do I Find Out If I Have Graves' Disease?
Although Graves' disease can be diagnosed from the results of one or two tests, your doctor may use several methods to double-check the findings and rule out other disorders. An analysis of your blood will show if the levels of two hormones -- tetraiodothyrinine (free T-4) and triiodothyronine (free T-3), which are produced or regulated by the thyroid -- are higher than normal. If they are, and if levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood are abnormally low, you are hyperthyroid, and Graves' disease is the likely culprit. Blood analysis can also detect the presence of the abnormal antibody associated with Graves' disease, but this test is somewhat expensive and generally not necessary.
To confirm a diagnosis of Graves' disease, your doctor may conduct a radioactive iodine uptake test, which shows whether large quantities of iodine are collecting in the thyroid. The gland needs iodine to make thyroid hormones, so if it is absorbing unusually large amounts of iodine, it obviously is producing too much hormone.
If bulging eyeballs (called exophthalmos) is the only symptom, your doctor will probably run blood tests to check for hyperthyroidism, since this eye disorder is not always related to Graves' disease. The doctor may also evaluate eye muscles using ultrasound, a CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Signs of swelling in any one of these tests will go along with the diagnosis of Graves' disease.
What Are the Treatments for Graves' Disease?
If you have Graves' disease, or even suspect that you have it, you should have a professional diagnosis and, if necessary, a treatment plan that suits your particular condition. Although the disorder is rooted in a malfunctioning immune system, the goal of treatment is to restore thyroid hormone levels to their correct balance and to relieve discomfort.
Conventional Medicine for Graves' Disease
The two most frequently used treatments involve disabling the thyroid's ability to produce hormones.
One common approach uses a strong dose of radioactive iodine to destroy cells in the thyroid gland. This procedure attempts to halt excess hormone production by thinning the ranks of cells responsible for manufacturing the hormones. The amount of radioactive iodine received depends on the estimated size of the thyroid -- determined either through a physical exam or by ultrasound -- and on the gland's level of activity, as indicated by the results of an iodine uptake test. Despite its destructive effect on thyroid cells, the iodine used in this procedure will not harm surrounding tissues and organs.
At the beginning of the treatment, you will be given a capsule or liquid containing the radioactive iodine. Either way you take it, you should not feel any effects as the substance enters your system. Most of the iodine will gather and remain in your thyroid; excess amounts will be excreted in urine. It is a good idea to drink several extra glasses of water per day for about a week after the treatment to help flush the material out of your body as quickly as possible. To be on the safe side, you should also limit contact with infants, children, and pregnant women for at least seven days after you ingest the iodine.