What is Graves' disease?

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder that involves the thyroid gland. The immune system is a complicated network made up of cells and organs that are distributed throughout the body. This network includes the thymus gland, the spleen, different types of white blood cells produced in the bone marrow, specialized cells that reside in tissues, and an interconnected system of lymph nodes and lymphatic channels. In the normal state, the immune system functions to protect the body from invading organisms. Complex interactions involving the transmission of chemical signals between cells and organs enable the immune system to recognize and destroy invading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that may cause infections. These interactions also enable the immune system to recognize and destroy abnormal cancer cells that threaten to spread to disrupt the functioning of tissues and organs throughout the body. To promote recognition and destruction, the immune system relies on a carefully regulated process that enables it to distinguish invading organisms and abnormal cancer cells from normal cells and structures in the body. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, this carefully regulated process may break down in certain circumstances. When this process breaks down, the immune system may erroneously begin to identify normal cells and structures as abnormal elements that become targeted for destruction. Disorders that are characterized by misguided targeting of normal cells and structures by the immune system are called autoimmune disorders.

Graves' disease is a specific autoimmune disorder that involves misguided targeting of normal cells and structures in the thyroid gland. This misguided targeting leads to the production of autoantibodies called thyroid stimulating immunoglobulins. These autoantibodies may stimulate the thyroid gland to produce and secrete excess amounts of thyroid hormone. They may also promote the development of disorders involving the tissues that surround the eyeballs and the tissues that lie directly beneath the surface of the skin.

Graves' disease is named after Robert Graves, an Irish physician who first identified it as a specific disorder in 1835. Other terms used to identify this disorder include Basedow disease and diffuse toxic goiter. Graves' disease is fairly common. It is estimated that there may be as many as 4,000,000 individuals living with Graves' disease in the United States. Up to 360,000 new cases may be diagnosed each year.