Q: Is there a connection between your eyes and thyroid health? – T.D.
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A: The quick answer is YES! Thyroid eye disease, also called Graves’ eye disease, is an autoimmune condition where immune cells attack the thyroid gland and can affect many different parts of the eye and surrounding tissues.
The abnormal immune reaction causes swelling in the tissues of the eyelids and orbit which can make the eyelids look puffy or as if the person has “baggy” eyelids. This can also create a sensation of pressure around the eyes. The swelling can be surgically altered to bring the lids back to a more normal shape.
The muscles in the eyelids tighten and pull the upper lid up and the lower lid down. This creates a startled look with too much of the whites of the eyes showing. This also can be surgically improved. The muscles which control movement of the eyes may be increased in size by the swelling. This can create problems with double vision and focusing. Prism glasses may be helpful, and this can also be improved by surgically moving the eye muscles.
Symptoms of redness, irritation, pressure and double vision are treated with lubrication, anti-inflammatory medications and prisms for the double vision, and will require some time to stabilize before your doctor will recommend surgical intervention.
Typically, the active or inflammatory stage of thyroid eye disease lasts one to three years. During this time, your doctor will avoid surgically treating these symptoms because the tissues are constantly changing and the results will not be stable. However, there are some problems that are dangerous to your vision and these require more immediate treatment.
Because the eye is pushed forward, and because the eyelids are pulled open by the muscles, you may have difficulty closing your eyelids. This can lead to a corneal ulcer, which causes scarring and permanent loss of the vision. Immediate treatment is necessary. The corneal ulcer would cause redness of the eye, pain and usually decrease in vision. You should seek immediate attention from your doctor for these problems.
A second danger to vision occurs when swollen tissues compress the optic nerve. The optic nerve functions as an extension cord between the eye and the brain to carry the message of vision. When the nerve is compressed, color vision is abnormal, lights may seem dimmer than usual and the sharpness of the vision decreases. These changes may be reversed with treatment, but could progress to permanent loss of vision. Tell your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.
The treatment options for vision-threatening problems in thyroid eye disease include corticosteroids or other anti-inflammatory medications, radiation and surgery. A combination of these may be necessary to protect vision. Most people with thyroid eye disease do not get corneal ulcers or optic neuropathy, but it is important to understand the symptoms so you know when to seek help.