The treatment goals for Graves' disease are to inhibit the production of thyroid hormones and to block the effect of the hormones on the body. Some treatments include:
Radioactive iodine therapy
With this therapy, you take radioactive iodine, or radioiodine, by mouth. Because the thyroid needs iodine to produce hormones, the radioiodine goes into the thyroid cells and the radioactivity destroys the overactive thyroid cells over time. This causes your thyroid gland to shrink, and symptoms lessen gradually, usually over several weeks to several months.
Radioiodine therapy may increase your risk of new or worsened symptoms of Graves' ophthalmopathy. This side effect is usually mild and temporary, but the therapy may not be recommended if you already have moderate to severe eye problems.
Other side effects may include tenderness in the neck and a temporary increase in thyroid hormones. Radioiodine therapy isn't used for treating pregnant women or women who are breast-feeding.
Because this treatment causes thyroid activity to decline, you'll likely need treatment later to supply your body with normal amounts of thyroid hormones.
Anti-thyroid medications interfere with the thyroid's use of iodine to produce hormones. These prescription medications include propylthiouracil and methimazole (Tapazole).
Because the risk of liver disease is more common with propylthiouracil, methimazole is considered the first choice when doctors prescribe medication.
When these two drugs are used alone, a relapse of hyperthyroidism may occur at a later time. Taking the drug for longer than a year, however, may result in better long-term results. Anti-thyroid drugs may also be used before or after radioiodine therapy as a supplemental treatment.
Side effects of both drugs include rash, joint pain, liver failure or a decrease in disease-fighting white blood cells. Methimazole isn't used to treat pregnant women in the first trimester because of the slight risk of birth defects. Therefore, propylthiouracil is the preferred anti-thyroid drug during the first trimester for pregnant women. After the first trimester, methimazole use is generally resumed and propylthiouracil is no longer prescribed.
These medications don't inhibit the production of thyroid hormones, but they do block the effect of hormones on the body. They may provide fairly rapid relief of irregular heartbeats, tremors, anxiety or irritability, heat intolerance, sweating, diarrhea, and muscle weakness.
Beta blockers include:
- Propranolol (Inderal)
- Atenolol (Tenormin)
- Metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol-XL)
- Nadolol (Corgard)
Beta blockers aren't often prescribed for people with asthma, because the drugs may trigger an asthma attack. These drugs may also complicate management of diabetes.
Surgery to remove all or part of your thyroid (thyroidectomy or subtotal thyroidectomy) also is an option for the treatment of Graves' disease. After the surgery, you'll likely need treatment to supply your body with normal amounts of thyroid hormones.
Risks of this surgery include potential damage to the nerve that controls your vocal cords and the tiny glands located adjacent to your thyroid gland (parathyroid glands). Your parathyroid glands produce a hormone that controls the level of calcium in your blood. Complications are rare under the care of a surgeon experienced in thyroid surgery.
Treating Graves' ophthalmopathy
Mild symptoms of Graves' ophthalmopathy may be managed by using over-the-counter artificial tears during the day and lubricating gels at night. If your symptoms are more severe, your doctor may recommend:
- Corticosteroids. Treatment with prescription corticosteroids, such as prednisone, may diminish swelling behind your eyeballs. Side effects may include fluid retention, weight gain, elevated blood sugar levels, increased blood pressure and mood swings.
- Prisms. You may have double vision either because of Graves' disease or as a side effect of surgery for Graves' disease. Though they don't work for everyone, prisms in your glasses may correct your double vision.
Orbital decompression surgery. In this surgery, your doctor removes the bone between your eye socket (orbit) and your sinuses — the air spaces next to the orbit. This gives your eyes room to move back to their original position.
This treatment is usually used if pressure on the optic nerve threatens the loss of vision. Possible complications include double vision.
- Orbital radiotherapy. Orbital radiotherapy was once a common treatment for Graves' ophthalmopathy, but the benefits of the procedure aren't clear. Orbital radiotherapy uses targeted X-rays over the course of several days to destroy some of the tissue behind your eyes. Your doctor may recommend orbital radiotherapy if your eye problems are worsening and prescription corticosteroids alone aren't effective or well-tolerated.
Graves' ophthalmopathy doesn't always improve with treatment for Graves' disease. Symptoms of Graves' ophthalmopathy may even get worse for three to six months. After that, the signs and symptoms of Graves' ophthalmopathy usually stabilize for a year or so and then begin to get better, often on their own.