If you or someone you love has just been diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, you’re probably unsure of what to expect. When first diagnosed, one of the bigger concerns people have is the potential loss of eyesight due to Thyroid Eye Disease. So how does Graves’ Disease affect the eyes?
What is Graves’ Disease?
Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland. It is the most common type of hyperthyroidism - which is sometimes referred to as having an “overactive” thyroid. Those suffering from Graves’ Disease will experience most of the effects associated with hyperthyroidism, including weight loss, nervousness, muscle weakness, brittle hair and nails, tremors, difficulty sleeping, and an overabundance of energy followed by extreme tiredness. In addition to these side effects, many of those with Graves’ Disease will likely experience a skin disease known as pretibial myxedema and eye problems.
How does Graves’ Disease affect eyesight?
Graves’ Disease can cause proptosis - bulging eyes caused by the swelling and inflammation in the muscles and tissue surrounding the eye. The side effects associated with Graves’ Disease are sometimes called Thyroid Eye Disease (TED), Graves’ Eye Disease or Graves' Ophthalmopathy. The bulging associated with proptosis can make it difficult for eyelids to protect the eyes, ultimately resulting in unpleasant side effects like dry, painful and irritated eyes.
Thyroid Eye Disease can lead to vision loss in one of two ways. First, if left untreated, the extreme dryness may eventually cause the cornea to dry out, causing scarring and potential vision loss. In some cases, it may even cause double vision as eye movement is affected.
In addition, those experiencing proptosis may also develop glaucoma, or damage to the optic nerve. As you may already know, the optic nerve is responsible for transmitting images to your brain. Over time, pressure and swelling around the eye cause damage to these nerve fibers, resulting in loss of peripheral vision followed by “tunnel vision.” As glaucoma progresses, some may eventually experience complete vision loss.
What can you do to prevent loss of vision?
First, it’s important to note that while many people with Graves’ Disease experience eye irritation and swelling within six months of diagnosis, only a small percentage of people will experience symptoms severe enough to cause permanent damage. According to Kellogg Eye Center, it’s extremely rare for those suffering from Graves’ Ophthalmopathy to experience complete vision loss.
Nonetheless, it’s important to be vigilant about your eyesight. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism or Graves’ Disease, be sure to talk to your doctor about your eyesight, as you may need a referral to a hospital-affiliated opthamologist who is highly specialized in such eye diseases. Sometimes, surgery or other treatments are required to help stop the progression of Graves’ Eye Disease and ease discomfort caused by side effects.
And, as always, it’s a good idea to adopt good lifestyle habits that lead to good eye health, including quitting tobacco products, getting annual eye exams, and maintaining a healthy diet filled with leafy greens, fish, vegetables, and minimal amounts of high glycemic index foods.