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Risks and Symptoms of Graves' Disease and Hyperthyroidism

Risk Factors, Triggers, Causes, Signs and Symptoms

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Updated June 02, 2014

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The risk factors for development of hyperthyroidism or Graves' disease include personal or family history of thyroid or autoimmune disease, recent pregnancy, and exposure to iodine, among other factors.

Some of the key risk factors and triggers for Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism include the following:

Gender -- Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism affect women 8 times more often than men.

History -- Having any past history of thyroid problems, autoimmune disease, or endocrine disease yourself or in your family puts you at greater risk for developing Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism.

Age -- The riskiest age for developing Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism is between 20 and 40.

Pregnancy -- Pregnancy and the year after childbirth are both times of greater risk for Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism

Smoking -- There is an increased risk of Graves' disease in smokers. Smokers with Graves' ophthalmopathy tend to have more severe symptoms that are more resistant to treatment.

Excessive Intake of Thyroid Hormone -- Taking too much prescription thyroid hormone -- whether by accident, or by deliberate self-medication can cause hyperthyroidism. Some over-the-counter energy, diet and glandular supplements also may contain some active thyroid hormone, which can cause hyperthyroidism. (Read Could You Be Hyperthyroid Due to Being Overmedicated?)

Exposure to or Excess of Iodine/Iodine Drugs -- Being exposed to or ingesting an excess of iodine, whether through medical tests, topical exposure, or ingesting of iodine or supplements containing iodine (i.e., kelp, bladderwrack) can trigger hyperthyroidism.

Certain Medical Treatments and Drugs -- Some treatments and medications can trigger Graves' disease and/or thyrotoxicosis in some people, including: Interferon Beta-1b and Interleukin-4, immunosuppressant therapy, antiretroviral treatment for AIDS, and lithium. There are two particular treatments that are known triggers: a third of patients receiving monoclonal antibody (Campath-1H) therapy for multiple sclerosis (MS) develop Graves' disease within six months, and receiving a donated organ or bone marrow transplant from someone with Graves' disease can also cause the disease in the recipient.

Trauma to the Thyroid -- Thyroid trauma can trigger hyperthyroidism in some people. The types of trauma include vigorous manipulation or palpation of the thyroid; surgery to the thyroid, parathyroids, or the area surrounding the thyroid; injection to the thyroid; biopsy of the thyroid; and neck injury, i.e., whiplash, or from an automobile seat belt after a crash.

Major Stress -- Stress is a factor that appears to trigger the onset of Graves' disease in some patients. Researchers have documented a definite connection between major life stressors -- i.e., death of a spouse, divorce or separation, loss of a job, death of close family member, major accident/personal injury, moving, marriage -- and the onset of Graves' disease.

Holistic and nutritional practitioners have also suggested that there may be other trigger factors, including:

  • Consumption of the artificial sweetener aspartame
  • Nutritional or dietary deficiencies
  • Bacterial or viral infections

Symptoms of Graves' Disease/Hyperthyroidism

There are numerous symptoms of Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism. To pinpoint your own symptoms of an overactive thyroid, review the following list, or take the online quiz:Could You Be Hyperthyroid?

Goiter -- The most common symptom of Graves' disease is goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid, with symptoms that can include a visibly larger neck, a feeling of fullness in the neck or throat, discomfort with ties or scarves, a feeling like the thyroid is vibrating or buzzing, a choking sensation, pain or tenderness in the neck or hoarseness.

Weight Changes -- Usually patients lose weight without change in diet or exercise, or they experience dramatically increased appetite (especially for carbohydrates) without any weight gain. Some people lose so much weight and stop eating, or eat so little, that they may be misdiagnosed as anorexic. Some people actually stop eating, or eat very little -- and are considered anorexic. In some cases, women -- especially teenagers -- have actually been misdiagnosed as anorexic, because of rapid, dramatic weight loss, when the actual problem was the onset of Graves' disease. A small percentage of patients actually gain weight with hyperthyroidism because they increase their intake to such an extent that the increased metabolism does not compensate.

Pregnancy Problems -- Difficulty in pregnancy, in particular, weight loss during pregnancy, or excessive nausea and/or vomiting can be a symptom of thyroid problems. Rapid weight loss after pregnancy can also be a symptom of hyperthyroidism.

Temperature Problems -- Some people with hyperthyroidism feel warm or hot when others are cold, or feel warm all the time. They may run a low grade fever, sweat more, or feel thirsty.

Heart and Blood Pressure Changes -- Symptoms include racing, fast heartbeat, sensation of a "loud" or pounding heartbeat, skipped beats, palpitations, or abnormal heart rhythms.

Gastrointestinal Problems -- Symptoms include frequent bowel movements, loose bowel movements, diarrhea, more frequent urination, or nausea.

Energy / Muscles / Joints -- Hyperthyroid symptoms include extreme fatigue, muscle and joint fatigue, especially in leg and arm muscles, difficulty climbing stairs, exercise intolerance. A percentage of hyperthyroid patients actually have more energy, and feel like they need little sleep, and feel a need to exercise.

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