Thyroid Eye Disease

A woman putting eye drops in her eye

What is Thyroid Eye Disease?

When your body starts acting or looking a little bit differently than normal, most people begin to wonder if they are sick. There are many mild symptoms that can indicate numerous illnesses, such as abnormal headaches or a runny nose, but some symptoms are more specific to unique conditions. Bulging eyes, for example, are not common, and can be an indicator of thyroid eye disease.

Thyroid Eye Disease

That is exactly what happens with thyroid eye disease. Sometimes referred to as Graves’ Orbitopathy or Ophthalmopathy, thyroid eye disease is when someone’s body attacks tissue around the eyes. While it may share symptoms with several other harmless conditions, there are several trademark symptoms that separate this disease from others.

Common Symptoms of Thyroid Eye Disease

While an official medical assessment carried out by a doctor is necessary for a formal diagnosis, there are several symptoms you may notice. Contact your physician if you are experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Bulging eyes: This is the trademark sign of thyroid eye disease. Eyes often appear as though they are being “pushed out” of the head. It’s commonly accompanied by swollen eyelids.
  • Teary eyes: Watery eyes that are constantly leaking despite another explanation (such as allergies) is a sign of thyroid eye disease.
  • Dry eyes: Conversely, excessively dry eyes that may even feel “gritty” can also be the result of an autoimmune response.
  • Light sensitivity: Patients often experience sensitivity and intolerance to bright lights.
  • Bags under eyes: While it is perfectly normal to develop bags under your eyes, especially in response to lack of sleep, the formation of new bags in combination with other symptoms on this list may indicate thyroid eye disease.
  • Red eyes: Thyroid eye disease patients usually exhibit reddened eyes or eyelids.
  • Blurred vision: Do you consistently experience blurry vision or double vision? Contact your doctor, as this can be a sign of several different medical conditions.
  • Pain behind eyes: If you experience a dull pain behind the eyes, this may be thyroid eye disease. This is commonly experienced by patients, especially when they attempt to move their eyes.
  • “Stiff” eyes: Patients sometimes experience difficulty being able to move their eyes to look to the side. There may feel like there is something preventing you from doing so.

What Causes Thyroid Eye Disease?

Thyroid eye disease is caused by an abnormal immune response. When your body faces dangers like diseases or pathogens, there is a defense system in place. This defense system attacks threats and keeps you healthy. With autoimmune diseases, this defense system malfunctions a bit.

The defense system recognizes healthy tissue as a threat and begins to attack it. With thyroid eye disease, the targeted tissues are all around the eye socket. The symptoms of thyroid eye disease are due to this attack on the muscles and other ocular tissues being damaged by one’s own body.

This attack on the body causes inflammation of the tissues behind the eye, which physically pushes the eyes forward in the socket.

While the initial symptoms may not feel like that big of a deal, if left untreated, patients may have problems closing their eyes. In extreme cases, the optic nerve can be compromised, and individuals will lose their vision.

Before you start to panic, know that this is an incredibly rare condition. There are also several steps you can take in order to limit damage and address subsequent problems caused by the disease.

Is There A Cure?

Unfortunately, there are no known cures for thyroid eye disease. Those who experience thyroid eye disease will have to live with the disease for the rest of their life. This doesn’t mean that it will always be present. There are active and stable phases.

Treatments for Thyroid Eye Disease

While there isn’t a cure for the disease, there are several treatments a physician can recommend. These treatments aim to manage the symptoms and address the malfunctions that cause the problems in the first place.

  • Eye drops: Topical treatments, such as eye drops or artificial tears, can help combat the uncomfortable symptoms of the disease.
  • Steroids: While steroids can’t change the course of thyroid eye disease, they can excellently address the symptoms. They help protect soft tissues during the “active phase” when most of the damages are being done.
  • Orbital radiation: Using small doses of radiation, doctors target inflamed areas. These radiation trials are used in combination with other treatments such as steroids.
  • Biological therapy: There are several customized therapies that aim to address the malfunctions in the body on a molecular level. These involve some medications available for treating other conditions (Remicade and Enbrel). They also involve a lot of experimental medications that are currently undergoing clinical trials. In recent news, the FDA approved the first thyroid eye disease medication in January 2020. This promising milestone may help those who suffer from the disease regain control of their health.