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How Thyroid Disease Affects Your Eyes

Do your eyes ever ache, become red and irritated or maybe overly sensitive? Do you ever have a sensation of pressure in or behind your eyes? A first thought might be dry eyes or a sinus infection however, if you are a middle-aged female it could be Thyroid Eye Disease. Thyroid eye disease is a rare condition affecting about 16 women out of every 100,000 people. In men, it is less common about three out of every 100,000. Most of those affected have a problem with an overactive thyroid gland and have an underlying autoimmune condition. Some people are genetically predisposed making it more likely that they will get thyroid eye disease however; it is also more likely to develop if you smoke.

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland sitting near the top of your windpipe at the front of your neck. It has an important role in controlling the speed at which chemical reactions occur throughout tissues of your body. These reactions determine your metabolic rate. The thyroid gland can become overactive or underactive either speeding up or slowing down your metabolism. These changes are most often due to an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are not fully understood but occur when our immune system turns on and attacks our own body tissues.

Autoimmune thyroid disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Although not fully understood, when the thyroid gland is attacked, it sometimes is followed by the tissue around the eye being attacked as well. This condition is called Thyroid Eye Diseased or Graves’ disease.

Signs and symptoms of Thyroid Eye disease include swelling of the muscles and fatty tissues surrounding the eye within the eye socket. The swelling occurs due to inflammation of the ocular tissues. The eye socket, also called the orbit, has a limited space therefore, as the tissues swell, the eye can be pushed forward. Many people with thyroid eye disease appear to have bulging eyes as a result. As the eye is pushed forward, it makes the cornea more exposed and the eyelids cannot completely cover the eye as they close or blink. This causes the cornea to become dry and more susceptible to infection and scarring. In addition, because the eye muscles are swollen and the eyes cannot move as well, eye alignment may be affected causing double vision.

Treatments include medications to suppress the production of hormone by the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine to eliminate hormone-producing cells and in some cases, surgery to remove the thyroid tissue is an option.

Active eye inflammation is managed with oral prednisone (steroids) for short periods along with prednisolone drops and/or artificial tears and ointments for lubrication to protect the cornea. Orbital radiotherapy can reduce inflammation and changes in the muscles and fatty tissue around the eyes. In some cases, orbital decompression surgery is necessary to provide room for the swollen tissues and allow the eye to reseed back into the eye socket.

If you have questions about Thyroid Eye disease, please contact us in Stillwater at 405-372-1715. We also invite you to visit our website at and like us on Facebook at Cockrell Eyecare Center!