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The n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l of m e dic i n e

Review Article

DanL. Longo, M.D., Editor

Graves Disease
TerryJ. Smith, M.D., and Laszlo Hegeds, M.D., D.M.Sc.

From the Department of Ophthalmology raves disease was first recognized in the 19th century as a
and Visual Sciences, Kellogg Eye Center, syndrome comprising an enlarged and overactive thyroid gland, an accel-
and the Department of Internal Medicine,
University of Michigan Medical School erated heart rate, and ocular abnormalities (Fig.1). Critical for our current
both in Ann Arbor (T.J.S.); and the De- understanding of this disease was the discovery of its autoimmune basis, which
partments of Endocrinology and Metab- results from complex interactions between genetic and environmental factors.1,2
olism (L.H.) and Ophthalmology (T.J.S.),
Odense University Hospital, University Graves disease has adverse effects on quality of life,3 as a consequence of so-
of Southern Denmark, Odense. Address matic4 and psychiatric5 symptoms and an inability to work,6 and is associated with
reprint requests to Dr. Smith at the De- an increased risk of death.7 Activating thyrotropin-receptor antibodies induce thyroid
partment of Ophthalmology and Visual
Sciences, University of Michigan Medical hormone overproduction. Many characteristic signs and symptoms of Graves dis-
School, Brehm Tower, 1000 Wall St., Ann ease result from elevated thyroid hormone levels. Debate persists concerning the
Arbor, MI 48105, or at terrysmi@
med diagnosis of hyperthyroidism and adequate clinical care of affected patients.8,9
Thyroid-associated ophthalmopathy (Fig.1B), the most common and serious ex-
N Engl J Med 2016;375:1552-65. trathyroidal manifestation, results from underlying autoimmunity, but insights
DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1510030
Copyright 2016 Massachusetts Medical Society. into its pathogenesis and care remain elusive.

Epidemiol o gy
Graves disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, with an annual
incidence of 20 to 50 cases per 100,000 persons.10 The incidence peaks between 30
and 50 years of age, but people can be affected at any age. The lifetime risk is 3%
for women and 0.5% for men. Long-term variations in iodine intake do not influ-
ence the risk of disease, but rapid repletion can transiently increase the incidence.
The annual incidence of Graves diseaseassociated ophthalmopathy is 16 cases
per 100,000 women and 3 cases per 100,000 men. It is more common in whites
than in Asians.11 Severe ophthalmopathy is more likely to develop in older men
than in younger persons.12 Orbital imaging reveals subtle abnormalities in 70% of
patients with Graves disease.13 In specialized centers, clinically consequential
ophthalmopathy is detected in up to 50% of patients with Graves disease, and it
threatens sight as a consequence of corneal breakdown or optic neuropathy in 3 to
5% of such patients.14 Hyperthyroidism and ophthalmopathy typically occur within
1 year of each other but can be separated by decades. In 10% of persons with
ophthalmopathy, either thyroid levels remain normal or autoimmune hypothyroid-
ism develops.12,14

Cl inic a l Pr e sen tat ion

The manifestations of Graves disease depend on the age of the patient at the
onset of hyperthyroidism, as well as the severity and the duration of hyperthyroid-
ism.15 Symptoms and signs result from hyperthyroidism (goiter in some cases) or
are a consequence of underlying autoimmunity (Table1). Weight loss, fatigue, heat

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Gr aves Disease



Figure 1. Clinical Manifestations of Graves Disease.

Panel A shows a diffuse, moderately enlarged goiter in a woman with Graves hyperthyroidism. Panel B shows moderate-
to-severe, thyroid-associated ophthalmopathy characterized by bilateral proptosis, periorbital edema, scleral injection,
and lid retraction. Panel C shows the plaque form of pretibial dermopathy. Panel D shows acropachy with clubbing
of the fingers.

intolerance, tremor, and palpitations are the most 10% of patients who are 60 years of age or older.
common symptoms, occurring in more than 50% Palpable goiter develops in most patients with
of patients. Weight loss, decreased appetite, and hyperthyroidism who are younger than 60 years
cardiac manifestations are more common in elder- of age (Fig. 1A), as compared with less than 50%
ly persons with hyperthyroidism than in those of older patients.16 Diffuse thyroid enlargement is
who are younger. Atrial fibrillation due to hyper- most frequent, but many patients with Graves
thyroidism is rare in patients who are younger disease who live in iodine-deficient regions have
than 60 years of age but occurs in more than coexisting nodular goiter.17

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The n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l of m e dic i n e

Table 1. Major Symptoms and Physical Signs in Graves

opment is heralded by an active phase lasting up
Disease. to 3 years and dominated by evolving symptoms
and signs of inflammation and congestion. Pro-
Symptoms ptosis (Fig.1B), eyelid swelling, and diplopia
Weight loss (weight gain in 10% of patients) may prompt initial medical attention. Some pa-
Palpitations tients have dry eye, increased tearing, and ocular
discomfort early in the active phase. This is fol-
lowed by an inactive phase in which the ocular
Tiredness, fatigue, muscle weakness
manifestations become stable. Table1 lists the
Heat intolerance, increased sweating
most common features of ophthalmopathy. In a
Increased stool frequency
cohort of consecutively assessed patients with
Anxiety, altered mood, insomnia
Graves disease, the prevalence of distinct abnor-
Nervousness, hyperactivity
malities was as follows: eyelid retraction, 92%;
exophthalmos, 62%; extraocular muscle dysfunc-
Thirst and polyuria
tion, 43%; ocular pain, 30%; increased lacrima-
Menstrual disturbances in women (oligomenorrhea
or amenorrhea) tion, 23%; and optic neuropathy, 6%.19
Loss of libido Mild eyelid retraction or lag may occur in
Neck fullness thyrotoxicosis from any cause, as a result of in-
Eye symptoms (swelling, pain, redness, double vision) creased sympathetic tone. The activity of oph-
Physical signs of hyperthyroidism
thalmopathy can be graded by assigning 1 point
Tachycardia, atrial fibrillation
for each of the following manifestations: eyelid
Systolic hypertension, increased pulse pressure
erythema and edema, conjunctiva injection, carun
Cardiac failure
cular swelling, chemosis, retrobulbar pain, and
Weight loss
pain with eye movement. A score of 3 or higher
Fine tremor, hyperkinesis, hyperreflexia indicates active disease. The activity score to-
Warm, moist skin gether with an evaluation of the severity of
Palmar erythema and onycholysis symptoms, including proptosis, reduced visual
Muscle weakness acuity, and impaired eye movement guides
Hair loss treatment decisions.20
Diffuse, palpable goiter and thyroid bruit
Mental-status and mood changes (e.g., mania Localized Dermopathy and Acropachy
or depression) Thyroid dermopathy (Fig.1C) occurs in 1 to 4%
Extrathyroidal physical signs of patients with Graves disease and is nearly
Ophthalmopathy always seen in those with severe ophthalmopa-
Eyelid lag, retraction, or both thy.21 It most frequently localizes to the pretibial
Proptosis (exophthalmos) region but can occur elsewhere, especially after
Double vision (extraocular-muscle dysfunction) trauma to the skin. Acropachy resembles club-
Periorbital edema, chemosis, scleral injection bing of the fingers or toes and occurs only in
Exposure keratitis patients with dermopathy21 (Fig.1D).
Optic neuropathy
Localized dermopathy
Patho gene sis
Initiating Factors
Unambiguous identification of the factors un-
derlying Graves disease has not yet been accom-
Thyroid-Associated Ophthalmopathy plished. Genetic and epigenetic determinants are
Orbital involvement represents a parallel conse- leading candidates for these factors.1,2,22 Large-
quence of the underlying autoimmunity occur- scale genetic analyses have identified several
ring within the thyroid. Ophthalmopathy can be genes conferring susceptibility. These include
disfiguring and can threaten sight. Its clinical genes encoding thyroglobulin, thyrotropin recep-
course typically follows a pattern originally de- tor, HLA-DR-Arg74, the protein tyrosine phos-
scribed by Rundle and Wilson.18 Disease devel- phatase nonreceptor type 22 (PTPN22), cytotoxic

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Gr aves Disease

T-lymphocyteassociated antigen 4 (CTLA4), receptors and major-histocompatibility-complex

CD25, and CD40.1 Hypermethylation of several (MHC) molecules on antigen-presenting cells
genes has been identified, including those en- such as dendritic cells, monocytes, and B cells.
coding thyrotropin receptor and proteins involved T cells rely on second signals, without which
in T-cell signaling.22 Environmental factors such they become anergic. Some T cells differentiate
as dietary iodine, exposure to tobacco smoke, into effector-cell phenotypes that have the func-
infections, and emotional stress are frequently tions of type 1, type 2, or type 17 helper T cells
cited. Therapy with alemtuzumab, a CD52-target- (Th1, Th2, or Th17). Others develop into regula-
ing monoclonal antibody, can induce Graves tory T cells (e.g., regulatory T cells with the
disease.23 How these diverse factors interact to CD25+Foxp3+ phenotype), which can attenuate
confer a risk of disease remains uncertain.24 immune reactivity.29 Each phenotype produces a
characteristic pattern of cytokines. The balance
AntiThyrotropin-Receptor Antibodies between proinflammatory factors and factors
Activating autoantibodies of the IgG1 subclass that dampen immune reactivity determines the
that are directed against the thyrotropin recep- amplitude and duration of immune responses.
tor are both specific for and central to Graves In Graves disease, autoreactive T cells against
disease (Fig.2A).25 Their oligoclonal generation, the thyrotropin receptor have escaped both cen-
primarily by intrathyroidal B cells, reflects the tral (thymic) and peripheral editing. Receptors
diseases primary autoimmune reaction. These on these CD4+ helper T cells interact with MHC
antibodies stimulate thyroid hormone produc- class II molecules through which thyrotropin-
tion that is uncontrolled by the hypothalamic receptor peptides are presented. Intrathyroidal
pituitary axis. Activating antibodies mimic the T cells are particularly reactive to thyroid anti-
actions of thyrotropin at its receptor through the gens and predominantly have the Th2 pheno-
initiation of similar, but not identical, signaling.26 type.29 However, the issue of whether Graves
In addition to activating antibodies, those that disease is biased to the Th1 or Th2 functional
block the thyrotropin receptor can result in hy- subset remains controversial.30 Variable-region
pothyroidism. The balance between stimulatory gene use by clonally expanded intrathyroidal
and blocking antibodies determines the level of Tcells is biased as compared with peripheral-
thyroid function. Antithyrotropin-receptor anti- blood T cells.31
bodies recognize epitopes on the alpha subunit. B cells develop into antibody-producing plas-
A recent study has shown the importance of the ma cells in a process requiring second signals.
multimeric form of the alpha subunit in promot- The first of these signals is provided by antigen
ing affinity maturation of these immunoglobu- binding to the B-cell receptor and the second by
lins.27 Besides thyrotropin-receptor antibodies, CD40 on the B-cell surface interacting with
antibodies directed at thyroglobulin and thyro- CD40 ligand on T cells. These interactions result
peroxidase are frequently detected in patients with in the production of critical cytokines, such as
Graves disease. These antibodies most likely interleukin-4, which promote antibody secretion
arise from antigen spreading and have no known and T-cell support of class switching. B cells ini-
pathological role. Activating antibodies target- tially produce IgM, which can be class-switched
ing the insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor to IgG or IgE. Intrathyroidal B cells have re-
have also been detected in patients with Graves duced mitogenic responses but spontaneously
disease and may play a role in ophthalmopathy secrete antithyrotropin-receptor antibodies. They
(discussed below).28 are presumed to be the principal source for these
antibodies, although peripheral-blood B cells are
T Cells and B Cells also a likely source.32
Both T cells and B cells, critical components of
adaptive immunity, are necessary for the devel- Thyroid Epithelial-Cell Involvement
opment of Graves disease. Thymic education of The precise role (or roles) of thyroid epithelial
immune cells leads to the deletion of autoreac- cells in the pathogenesis of Graves disease re-
tive T cells from the lymphocyte pool. These T cells mains incompletely understood. These cells ex-
show proliferative responses through antigen- press important organ-specific antigens, such
specific interactions occurring between T-cell as the thyrotropin receptor, thyroglobulin, and

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The n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l of m e dic i n e

A Theoretical Model of Intrathyroidal Graves Disease

Interleukin-1 CD40
Interleukin-6 TNF-
Dendritic cell
Interleukin-12 TGF-
(antigen-presenting) Interleukin-16 Interferon- Altered cell
Interleukin-17 RANTES behavior
B cell

Thyroid CD40
CD40 antibodies
T cell
Infiltration of
lymphocytes, Overactive
dendritic cells, and Activation thyrotropin Other Hypertrophy
macrophages receptor and hyperplasia

receptor Increased cyclic
T cell signaling

class II

B Theoretical Model of the Pathogenesis of Thyroid-Associated Ophthalmopathy

Infiltration of T-cell
the orbit
T cell MHC Differentiation
class II
B cell
Thyroid-stimulating Myofibroblast
Fibrocyte Activation
CD40 ligand
IGF-1 receptor CD40
antibodies Differentiation
Interleukin-1 CD40
Interleukin-6 TNF- IGF-1
OR B I T Interleukin-12 TGF- receptor
Interleukin-16 Interferon- Adipocyte
Interleukin-1 RANTES Hyaluronan and other

Orbital fat
Resident CD34
CD34 Down- Inflammatory molecules expansion
fibroblast regulation
Thyrotropin receptor
Other thyroid antigens Orbital tissue volume
CD34+ expansion, proptosis, and
fibroblast optic nerve compression

thyroperoxidase. Thyroid epithelial cells release roid epithelial cells are not considered profes-
several chemokines and thus may participate in sional antigen-presenting cells, they have the
the recruitment of these and other immune potential to present thyroid antigens to T cells.
cells.33 In Graves disease, thyroid epithelial cells In addition, their CD40 expression35,36 suggests
also express MHC class II molecules, probably as a the potential for direct, productive interactions
consequence of infiltrating, lymphocyte-produced between thyroid epithelium and antigen-specific
interferon- action in situ.34 Thus, although thy- T cells in Graves disease. The aggregate of cur-

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Gr aves Disease

Figure 2 (facing page). Pathogenesis of Graves Disease

variable-region gene use have been partially
Affecting the Thyroid Gland and Orbit. characterized.37 Interactions between T cells and
Panel A shows a theoretical model of the pathogenesis fibroblasts result in tissue activation and induc-
of intrathyroidal Graves disease. Thyroid-stimulating tion of genes involved in inflammation and tis-
immunoglobulins provoke the overproduction of thy- sue remodeling.38 These events are mediated by
roid hormones by activating the thyrotropin receptor, several cytokines, including interleukin-1, inter-
thus abrogating the normal regulatory role of thyro
tropin. In addition, infiltrating immune cells such as
leukin-6, and CD40 ligand. Orbital fat and extra-
B and T cells and antigen-presenting cells produce in- ocular muscles expand from accumulating hy-
terleukins 1, 6, and 12; interferon-; tumor necrosis aluronidase-digestible material and adipogenesis.12
factor ; CD40 ligand; and other cytokines. These cyto- Extraocular muscles remain intact, but fibers be-
kines, in turn, activate and sustain inflammation and come widely separated. In later stages of the dis-
alter the behavior of thyroid epithelial cells. Antithyroid
drugs can attenuate the production of thyroid hormones
ease, extraocular muscles can become fibrotic,
and the expression of intrathyroidal cytokines and thus resulting in restricted motility. It remains uncer-
modulate the autoimmune process. Panel B shows a tain what provokes lymphocyte infiltration, but
theoretical model of the pathogenesis of thyroid-asso- a shared antigen in the orbit and thyroid gland,
ciated ophthalmopathy. The orbit becomes infiltrated by such as the thyrotropin receptor, seems likely.12
B and T cells and CD34+ fibrocytes. The bone marrow
derived fibrocytes differentiate into CD34+ fibroblasts,
This view is supported by the relatively low level
which can further differentiate into myofibroblasts or of expression in orbital fat and orbital fibro-
adipocytes. CD34+ fibroblasts coinhabit the orbit with blasts.12,39,40 Fibroblasts inhabiting the orbit in
residential CD34 fibroblasts. These cells can all pro- Graves disease are heterogeneous, and when
duce cytokines, depending on the molecular signals activated by cytokines, they produce hyaluronan
they encounter in the microenvironment. These include
interleukins 1, 6, 8, and 16; tumor necrosis factor
and several inflammatory mediators. Fibroblasts
(TNF-); RANTES (regulated on activation, normal T-cell that display CD34, CXCR4, and collagen 1 are ap-
expressed and secreted); and CD40 ligand. These cyto- parently derived from circulating fibrocytes,40,41
kines, in turn, activate orbital fibroblasts. The CD34+ which are monocyte-lineage progenitor cells with
fibroblasts express low levels of thyrotropin receptor, inflammatory characteristics. The unique pres-
thyroglobulin, and other thyroid antigens. Thyroid-
stimulating immunoglobulins activate the thyrotropin
ence of fibrocytes in the orbit in ophthalmopa-
insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) receptor complex, thy suggests that they play a part in disease de-
leading to the expression of inflammatory molecules velopment. Fibrocytes promiscuously express
and glycosaminoglycan synthesis. In addition, immuno- proteins previously thought to be restricted to
globulins directed against the IGF-1 receptor can acti- the thyroid. These include thyrotropin receptor,
vate signaling in orbital fibroblasts, leading to cytokine
and hyaluronan production. Cytokine-activated fibro-
thyroglobulin, thyroperoxidase, and sodium
blasts synthesize hyaluronan and other glycosamino- iodide symporter, the expression of which is
glycans, which expand orbital tissue and cause propto- driven by the autoimmune regulator protein.41,42
sis and optic-nerve compression. In addition, the orbital Moreover, fibrocytes efficiently present antigens
fat expands, probably as a consequence of adipogene- to T cells. When activated by thyrotropin or
sis. MHC denotes major histocompatibility complex,
and TGF- transforming growth factor .
thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins, fibrocytes
release cytokines that have been implicated in
Graves disease. Fibrocytes can differentiate into
adipocytes or myofibroblasts and thus might
rent information suggests that the epithelium contribute to the tissue remodeling in ophthal-
plays a secondary, passive role in the pathogen- mopathy.
esis of Graves disease after immune cells have Involvement of the insulin-like growth factor 1
infiltrated the thyroid gland. receptor in ophthalmopathy is suggested by its
overexpression by orbital fibroblasts, T cells, and
Extrathyroidal Manifestations B cells in Graves disease.28,43,44 Furthermore,
In Graves disease, the immune pathogenesis of serum antibodies against this receptor can be
ophthalmopathy and that of hyperthyroidism detected in some persons with the disease, al-
are presumed to be similar. The orbital process though the interpretation of this finding remains
primarily targets fibroblasts (Fig.2B). During controversial. A functional and physical relation-
active disease, orbital tissues are variably infil- ship between the insulin-like growth factor 1 re-
trated with lymphocytes; their phenotypes and ceptor and the thyrotropin receptor has been

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The n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l of m e dic i n e

Suspected Graves disease

Measure serum thyrotropin

and free thyroxine levels

Normal thyrotropin Low thyrotropin and Low thyrotropin Normal or high serum
and free thyroxine high free thyroxine and normal thyrotropin and
free thyroxine high free thyroxine

Hyperthyroidism Measure free Thyrotropin-secreting

ruled out triiodothyronine pituitary tumor
Thyroid hormone
Assay interference
Measure thyrotropin-
receptor antibodies
High free Normal free
triiodothyronine triiodothyronine

Present Absent

Graves Assess radioiodine Triiodothyronine Subclinical

disease uptake, obtain toxicosis hyperthyroidism
radionuclide scan,
or both

Evolving Graves disease

Evolving toxic nodular
Homogeneous, Patchy uptake Excess thyroid hormone
Low or no uptake intake
increased uptake or single nodule
Nonthyroidal illness

Graves Toxic nodular Subacute thyroiditis

disease goiter Excess thyroid
hormone intake

Figure 3. Algorithm for Investigating the Clinical Suspicion of Graves Disease.

Not all experts rely on measurement of free thyroid hormone levels to determine the presence or absence of Graves disease. Some favor
measurement of total thyroid hormone levels corrected for serum protein binding. At diagnosis, many favor measurement of both free
thyroxine and free (or total) triiodothyronine levels. HCG denotes human chorionic gonadotropin.

identified.45 Interrupting the insulin-like growth Di agnosis

factor 1 receptor attenuates signaling down-
stream from the thyrotropin receptor,45 an obser- Graves Hyperthyroidism
vation that has subsequently been confirmed.46 The diagnosis of hyperthyroidism is based on
Mechanisms involved in pretibial myxedema characteristic clinical features and biochemical
are even less well understood. The lesions are abnormalities. Figure3 shows a commonly used
infiltrated with hyaluronan and are typically not diagnostic algorithm, which is a sufficient tool
inflammatory. for most cases. If pathognomonic features such

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Gr aves Disease

as ophthalmopathy or dermopathy are absent first-line treatment in Europe9,52 and are increas-
and a diffuse goiter is not detected, radionuclide ingly favored over radioiodine in North America.9
scanning can confirm the diagnosis. These Ablative therapy resulting in hypothyroidism, ei-
scanning studies and radioiodine uptake mea- ther from radioactive iodine or surgical thyroidec-
surement can be used to distinguish Graves tomy, necessitates lifelong thyroid hormone re-
disease from other causes of thyrotoxicosis. placement. Thus, each treatment approach has
Routine measurement of thyrotropin-receptor advantages and drawbacks. The patients prefer-
antibodies is not mandatory, but when such as- ence, after receiving adequate counseling, remains
says are performed, they have 99% sensitivity and a critical factor in therapy decisions. According to
specificity for Graves disease.47 They are also a randomized study with 14 to 21 years of follow-
helpful in diagnosing Graves disease in patients up, quality of life was similar among the various
with concomitant nodular goiter.17 Assays that can treatment options, as was cost.53 Treatments for
routinely distinguish antithyrotropin-receptor Graves hyperthyroidism and ophthalmopathy
antibodies that stimulate thyroid hormone pro- have been reviewed in detail previously.14,54,55 The
duction from those that block thyroid hormone most salient information is summarized in Ta-
production are under development.48 bles 2 and 3.

Thyroid-Associated Ophthalmopathy Antithyroid Drugs

Computed tomography or magnetic resonance Methimazole, carbimazole (which is converted to
imaging of the orbit is warranted when the cause methimazole and is not available in the United
of ocular manifestations remains uncertain. States), and propylthiouracil inhibit thyroid per-
These imaging studies are useful in distinguish- oxidase and thus block thyroid hormone synthesis
ing extraocular muscle enlargement from fat (Table2). Propylthiouracil also blocks extrathy-
expansion. Especially in cases of asymmetric roidal deiodination of thyroxine to triiodothyro-
proptosis, ruling out orbital tumor and arterio- nine. Methimazole is preferred for initial ther-
venous malformation is important. Assessment apy in both Europe and North America because
of the activity and severity of ophthalmopathy, of its favorable side-effect profile.9,52 Both meth
which can usually be accomplished by clinical imazole and propylthiouracil are associated with
examination, helps guide therapy.49 Several other a high risk of recurrence after treatment has been
imaging techniques, including orbital ultraso- withdrawn. Several variables appear to be asso-
nography, scintigraphy with radiolabeled octreo- ciated with durable disease remission, defined as
tide, gallium scanning, and thermal imaging, biochemical euthyroidism for at least 12 months,
may be useful in more precisely defining the after 1 to 2 years of therapy (Table2). Durable
orbital disease.50 remission occurs in 40 to 50% of patients. Re-
peated therapy carries an even lower likelihood
of success. It remains uncertain whether remis-
Ther a py
sion results from immunomodulation by these
Hyperthyroidism drugs. The recurrence rate is not further de-
The discussion of treatment is limited to adult creased by providing treatment for more than 18
patients, since the management of Graves dis- months or by combining antithyroid drugs with
ease in the young warrants separate consider- levothyroxine. Patients may be switched from
ation. Spontaneous remission occurs in a small one drug to another when necessitated by minor
proportion of patients with Graves disease, side effects, but 30 to 50% of patients have a
although data on patients with durable remission similar reaction to each drug.55 In our opinion,
are unavailable. For patients who currently smoke patients with severe side effects should not be
or formerly smoked tobacco, the efficacy of further exposed to either drug. Monitoring by
medical therapy is reduced,51 and the importance means of liver-function tests and white-cell counts
of smoking cessation cannot be overstated. Auto- before and during antithyroid drug therapy is
immune hypothyroidism develops in 10 to 20% advocated by some experts but is not currently
of patients during long-term follow-up. In un- supported by consensus opinion.8,9,55 One ran-
complicated cases, antithyroid drugs remain the domized study showed no benefit from granulo-

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Table 2. Main Treatment Options for Graves Hyperthyroidism.*

Treatment Mode of Action Route of Administration Advantages Disadvantages Special Considerations

Beta-blockers Beta-blockers competitively Oral; may be administered Ameliorates sweating, Does not influence course of Use cardioselective beta-blockers,
block -adrenergic re- intravenously in acute anxiety, tremulousness, disease; use cautiously in especially in patients with
ceptors; propranolol cases palpitations, and tachy- patients with asthma, con- COPD; use calcium-channel
may block conversion cardia gestive heart failure, brady- blockers as alternative
of thyroxine to triiodo- arrhythmias, or Raynauds
thyronine phenomenon
Antithyroid drugs (meth Methimazole, carbimazole, Given as either a single, Outpatient therapy; low risk High recurrence rate; frequent Major side effects in 0.20.3% of
imazole, carbimazole, and propylthiouracil high fixed dose (e.g., of hypothyroidism; no testing required unless patients,56,57 usually within first
and propylthiouracil) block thyroid peroxidase 1030 mg of methima- radiation hazard or sur- block-replacement therapy 3 mo of therapy; agranulocyto-
and thyroid hormone zole or 200600 mg of gical risk; remission is used; minor side effects sis in <0.2% of patients; hepato-

synthesis; propylthio- propylthiouracil daily) rate, 4050%56 in 5% of patients (rash, toxicity in 0.1%; cholestatic for
uracil also blocks con- and adjusted as euthy- urticaria, arthralgia, fever, the thionamides and hepatocel-
version of thyroxine to roidism is achieved or nausea, abnormalities of lular necrosis for propylthioura-
triiodothyronine combined with thyroxine taste and smell) cil; antineutrophil cytoplasmic
to prevent hypothyroid- antibodyassociated vasculitis
ism (blockreplace in 0.1% of patients57,58
Radioactive iodine Irradiation causes thyroid Oral; activity either fixed Normally outpatient proce- Potential radiation hazards, Should not be used in patients with
(iodine-131) cell damage and cell (e.g., 15 mCi [555 MBq]) dure, definitive therapy, adherence to a countrys active thyroid ophthalmopathy;
death or calculated on the low cost, few side ef- particular radiation regula- contraindicated in women who
basis of goiter size fects, effectively reduces tions, radiation thyroiditis, are pregnant or breast-feeding
and uptake and turn- goiter size decreasing efficacy with and for 6 wk after breast-feeding
overinvestigations increasing goiter size, has stopped
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eventual hypothyroidism

The New England Journal of Medicine


in most patients
Thyroidectomy Most or all thyroid tissue Rapid euthyroidism, recur- Most expensive therapy, hypo- Does not influence course of Graves
is removed surgically rence extremely rare, thyroidism is the aim, risks ophthalmopathy; during preg-
no radiation hazard, associated with surgery nancy, is best performed during

n engl j med 375; October 20, 2016

definitive histologic and anesthesiology, minor the second trimester8

Copyright 2016 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

results, rapid relief of complications in 12% of
m e dic i n e

pressure symptoms patients (bleeding, infec-

tion, scarring), major com-
plications in 14% (hypo-
parathyroidism, recurrent
laryngeal-nerve damage)

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* COPD denotes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The following factors are associated with an increased risk of recurrence after antithyroid drug therapy: previous recurrence of Graves disease, cigarette smoking, ophthalmopathy, large
goiter, elevated ratio of serum free triiodothyronine to free thyroxine, high titers of serum antithyrotropin-receptor antibodies, and persistent need for high-dose antithyroid drugs after
12 to 18 months of treatment. In the absence of these risk factors, euthyroidism is generally sustained for at least 12 months after therapy has been withdrawn.
The risks of hypothyroidism and persistent or recurrent hyperthyroidism are related to the volume of residual thyroid tissue.
Gr aves Disease

cyte colony-stimulating factor in patients with dose of an antithyroid drug should be used to
agranulocytosis.64 maintain thyroid function at the upper limit of
the normal range in order to avoid fetal hypo-
Radioactive Iodine thyroidism. Both propylthiouracil and methima-
Radioactive iodine therapy has been used widely zole are associated with birth defects.57 The use
in patients with Graves disease for seven de- of propylthiouracil in the first trimester and
cades.65 It offers relief from symptoms of hyper- methimazole during the remainder of pregnancy
thyroidism within weeks. Treatment with anti- is currently recommended on the basis of a con-
thyroid drugs may be suspended 3 to 7 days sideration of potentially severe birth defects.73
before and after radiotherapy in order to enhance Thyroid function should be monitored monthly.
its efficacy, although this interval remains con- In up to 50% of cases, antithyroid drugs may be
troversial.66 Many clinicians use fixed doses of discontinued after the first trimester, but post-
radioiodine, since calculation of activity is costly partum relapse is common.72 If elevated by a fac-
and fails to reduce rates of hypothyroidism or tor of more than 3, the level of antithyrotropin-
recurrent hyperthyroidism.65 Radioiodine is not receptor antibodies, beginning at a gestational
associated with an increased risk of cancer67 but age of 18 to 24 weeks, identifies pregnancies at
is known to provoke or worsen ophthalmopathy.14 risk for neonatal hyperthyroidism.72 Breast-feed-
Instead, increased morbidity and mortality as- ing is safe with either methimazole or propyl-
sociated with Graves disease appear to be related thiouracil, but methimazole is recommended for
to hyperthyroidism itself.4-7 Postablation thyroid postpartum therapy and does not affect infant
function should be monitored throughout life, thyroid function in the doses commonly used.74,75
and if hypothyroidism develops, it should be
treated immediately. Ophthalmopathy
Treatment for ophthalmopathy depends on the
Surgery phase and severity of the disease. The majority
Before patients undergo surgical thyroidectomy, of patients require only conservative measures
their thyroid hormone levels should be normal (Table3). These include enhancement of tear-
to minimize the risk of complications or a poor film quality and maintenance of ocular surface
outcome, which is higher for total thyroidectomy moisture. Patients with disease that is severely
than for subtotal thyroidectomy. The risks of symptomatic and sight-threatening may benefit
hypothyroidism and recurrent hyperthyroidism from intravenously administered pulse glucocor-
are inversely related and depend on the volume ticoid therapy, which appears to have a more
of residual tissue.68,69 Treatment with inorganic favorable side-effect profile than glucocorticoids
iodide commencing 1 week before surgery may administered orally, although pulse therapy is not
decrease thyroid blood flow, vascularity, and without risks.60,61,76 Glucocorticoids are frequent-
blood loss but does not otherwise influence sur- ly effective in reducing inflammatory symptoms,
gical risk.70 Surgery may be an attractive option but most experts do not believe that they modify
for patients with large goiters, women wishing the course of the disease. External-beam irradia-
to become pregnant shortly after treatment, and tion of severely affected orbits is used in some
patients who want to avoid exposure to antithy- specialized centers but not others.77 The combi-
roid drugs or radioiodine. It is recommended that nation of glucocorticoids and radiotherapy may
women who have undergone surgery wait until provide a greater benefit than either treatment
the serum thyrotropin level stabilizes with levo- used alone.62 Orbital decompression surgery dur-
thyroxine therapy before attempting conception. ing active disease is usually reserved for patients
The course of ophthalmopathy appears to be in whom compressive optic neuropathy has devel-
unaffected by surgical thyroidectomy.8,20,71 oped or is imminent.78 Decompression surgery is
also indicated when the ocular surface is severely
Treatment during Pregnancy compromised. These situations constitute sur-
Graves disease affects approximately 0.1% of gical emergencies. Rituximab, a biologic agent
pregnancies and carries a substantial risk of ad- that depletes CD20+ B cells, has been evaluat-
verse effects in mother and child, especially if edrecently in two prospective, randomized pi-
it is inadequately treated.72 The lowest effective lot studies involving patients with active, severe

n engl j med 375; October 20, 2016 1561

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Table 3. Treatments for Thyroid-Associated Ophthalmopathy.

Therapy Mode of Action Pros and Cons Common Doses

Mild active disease
Topical solutions
Artificial tears Maintain tear film Rapid action, minimal side
Glucocorticoids Reduce inflammation Rapid action, minimal side
Avoidance of wind, light, dust, smoke Reduces ocular surface desic-
cation, reduces irritation
Elevation of head during sleep Reduces orbital congestion
Avoidance of eye cosmetics Reduces irritation Benefits not yet confirmed
Selenium 59
Uncertain Benefits not yet confirmed
Moderate or severe active disease
Systemic glucocorticoids
Oral Reduce inflammation and Hyperglycemia, hypertension, Up to 100 mg of oral prednisone
orbital congestion osteoporosis daily, followed by tapering of
the dose60
Intravenous Reduce inflammation and Rapid onset of anti-inflamma Methylprednisolone, 500 mg/wk
orbital congestion tory effect, fewer side effects for 6 wk followed by 250 mg/wk
than oral delivery, liver for 6 wk61,62
damage on rare occasions
Orbital irradiation Reduces inflammation Can induce retinopathy 2 Gy daily for 2 wk (20 Gy total)63
B-cell depletion* Reduces autoreactive B cells Very expensive; risks of infec- Two 1000-mg doses of intrave-
tion, cancer, allergic re nous rituximab 2 wk apart
Emergency orbital decompression Reduces orbital volume
Stable disease (inactive)
Orbital decompression (fat removal) Reduces orbital volume Postoperative diplopia, pain
Bony decompression of the lateral and Reduces proptosis by enlarg- Postoperative diplopia, pain,
medial walls ing orbital space sinus bleeding, cerebro-
spinal fluid leak
Strabismus repair Improves eye alignment,
reduces diplopia
Eyelid repair Improves appearance,
reduces lagophthalmos,
and improves function

* B-cell depletion with the use of rituximab is currently considered an experimental treatment for ophthalmopathy; rituximab is not approved
by the Food and Drug Administration for this indication.
Emergency orbital decompression is indicated for optic neuropathy or severe corneal exposure.

ophthalmopathy. One trial suggested efficacy,79 relative efficacies have not been performed.81
whereas the other did not.80 The decision about which approach should be
Therapy during the stable phase of moderate- used depends on the primary objective of the
to-severe ophthalmopathy usually involves reha- surgery and the skill of the surgeon.78 In patients
bilitative surgery aimed at reducing proptosis, with diplopia, surgical decompression is followed
restoring function, and enhancing appearance. by strabismus surgery to correct abnormalities
The procedures are usually performed in a set of eye motility.82 Cosmetic and functional con-
sequence, beginning with orbital decompression. cerns are addressed last, with facelifts, tissue
Multiple approaches to surgical decompression fillers, and eyelid repair.
have been perfected, but controlled studies of their Most assessments of therapy for Graves hyper-

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Gr aves Disease

thyroidism suggest that radioactive iodine abla- arthritis appears to be an attractive approach, but
tion increases the risk of new or worsening oph- controlled, prospective trials are necessary. Agents
thalmopathy.8 Glucocorticoids appear to mitigate blocking the thyrotropin and insulin-like growth
this risk.83 In contrast, most studies have failed factor receptors are under consideration.45,46 For
to detect differences in the effect on ophthal- example, a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical
mopathy between surgical thyroidectomy and trial of the efficacy and safety of teprotumumab,
medical therapy. an insulin-like growth factor 1 receptorblocking
monoclonal antibody, in patients with active,
Dermopathy and Acropachy severe ophthalmopathy has recently been com-
Topical glucocorticoids can be used for symptom- pleted ( number, NCT01868997).
atic and extensive dermopathy but are usually in- Graves disease appears to be an ideal candidate
effective.21 The observation of a striking improve- for antigen-specific therapy, since the identity of
ment in dermopathy after rituximab infusion84 a dominant self-antigen is known. Restoring im-
suggests that B-cell depletion may benefit affect- mune tolerance to the thyrotropin receptor and
ed patients. However, this treatment is experi- other relevant autoantigens remains the ultimate
mental and has not been approved by the Food goal, sparing patients nonspecific immunosup-
and Drug Administration. No specific therapy is pression and toxic drugs.
available for acropachy. Dr. Smith reports holding patents related to the detection of
antibody-mediated inflammatory auto-immune disorders (US
6936426), the diagnosis and therapy of antibody-mediated
Future Therapies inflammatory autoimmune disorders (US 7998681 and US

As we gain a clearer understanding of Graves 8153121), and diagnostic methods related to Graves disease
disease, the potential for smart drug develop- and other autoimmune disorders (US 8178304). No other poten-
tial conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.
ment increases. Repurposing agents that effec- Disclosure forms provided by the authors are available with
tively disrupt cytokine networks in rheumatoid the full text of this article at

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CD010576. safety of orbital radiotherapy for Graves Copyright 2016 Massachusetts Medical Society.

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