What is Thyroid Eye Disease?

In Graves’ disease, the thyroid gland is hyperactive. Although it may develop at any age and in either sex, it most often affects women 20 to 60 years old. The disease can affect the eyes, as well as the thyroid gland and skin. When Graves’ disease affects the eyes, it is called Graves’ ophthalmopathy or Thyroid Eye Disease.

What causes it?

The cause of Graves’ disease is unknown. Current research suggests that a defect in the immune system may be the underlying cause of this disorder. Normally, the immune system uses antibodies (protein substances that the body makes) to help protect itself against viruses, bacteria and foreign substances that invade the body. In Graves’ disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, eyes, and skin of the lower legs, causing the disease’s symptoms.

Symptoms of Thyroid Eye Disease

Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Pain in the eyes, pain when looking up, down or sideways
  • Dryness, itching, dry eyes, difficulty wearing contact lenses
  • Inflammation and swelling of the eye, and its surrounding tissues
  • Swelling in the orbital tissues that causes the eye to be pushed forward. This can make thyroid eye disease sufferers appear to have a wide-eyed or bulging stare.
  • Bloodshot appearance to the eyes
  • Double vision
  • Impaired vision

How is it treated?

Treatment is individualized for each person’s symptoms. Sometimes combinations of the following procedures are used. Your physician may recommend:

  • Cool compresses, sunglasses, eyedrops or raising your head at night
  • Medications or radiation to shrink tissues
  • Orbital decompression surgery to improve vision and provide room for the eye to slip back into the orbit’s protection
  • Prisms for your glasses to correct double vision
  • Eye muscle surgery to achieve single vision when looking straight ahead and when reading; eyelid surgery to reduce the irritation of eyeball exposure; or both