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Thyroid Eye Disease

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’re 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 3 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 pre-disposed 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 establish your metabolic rate. The thyroid gland can become overactive or underactive. These changes are most often due to an autoimmune disease.  Autoimmune diseases are not fully understood but occur when our own 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 Disease or Graves Disease.

Signs and symptoms of Thyroid Eye disease include marked swelling of the muscles and fatty tissues surrounding the eyeball within the eye socket or orbit. The swelling is due to inflammation of these tissues. There is limited space inside the orbit so, as the tissues swell, the eyeball can be pushed forward. Many people with thyroid eye disease appear to have bulging eyes as a result.  As the eyeball 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 the eyeball cannot move as well, double vision may occur.

Treatments include medications to suppress the production of hormone by the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine to eliminate hormone-producing cells, and surgery to remove the thyroid tissue. Active eye inflammation is treated with prednisone for short periods along with artificial tears and ointments for corneal protection.  In some cases, orbital decompression surgery is necessary to provide room for the swollen tissues and allow the eye to reseed back into the orbit.

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!