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The eye changes associated with thyroid disease are referred to as Thyroid Eye Disease (TED). Your doctor may also use the term Thyroid Associated Orbitopathy (TAO). Although TED is seen in all types of thyroid disorders, it is most common in patients that are or were hyperthyroid. It also rarely occurs in those who are hypothyroid and even when there is an absence of thyroid abnormalities in the body.
Thyroid disease can cause multiple eye problems. These include redness and swelling, double vision, decreased vision, eyelid retraction (inability to close the eyes), and a bulging of the eye itself. It is important to realize that if one of these occurs, it does not mean you will necessarily get all the other symptoms too.
Eye problems will usually occur and frequently change in type or severity for between six months and two years. Once stabilized, it is unusual for the eyes to start changing again. Some patients are left with permanent changes, and in others the eyes return to normal. A great deal can be done to improve these conditions with medical treatment, although some patients will need surgery to help ease their issues.
What causes thyroid eye disease
TED is usually associated with systemic (generalized) hyperthyroidism or Graves' disease. This disease is caused by what is described as an autoimmune process. Autoimmune disease may be understood as a process by which the body sees some part of itself as being foreign and reacts to it much the same way that it would to any bacteria or virus.
In the case of Graves' disease, the body sees the thyroid gland as the foreign object and produces antibodies that attack the thyroid gland. This often causes the thyroid gland to become over active.
The eye version of this disease is called Thyroid Eye Disease. However, in the case of TED, different antibodies attack the muscles associated with eye and eyelid movement. Although the thyroid gland and the eye may be under attack by the same immune system, it is felt that both conditions remain mostly independent of one another. The antibodies that attack the eye can cause inflammation and swelling of the fat and muscles around the eye, which is what can eventually cause bulging of the eyes, double vision and retraction of the eyelids.
Will my eyes go back to normal after treatment?
Most patients think once their medical doctor treats the body's thyroid problem the eyes will go back to normal. This is often not the case. In some patients the eyes worsen in the months and years after medical treatment despite the body being stabilized. Even though good medical treatment may not prevent or cure TED, it is extremely important to treat the thyroid abnormality and keep your body in proper thyroid balance.
The eye specialist role
Roger Dailey, M.D., F.A.C.S., specializes in TED and has nearly 30 years of experience in treating patients that develop thyroid related eye problems. His first role may be to help you get through the time when your eyes are changing and provide simple solutions to the irritation, tearing and swelling often associated with TED. Often this involves something as simple as using artificial tears frequently during the day and lubrication ointment at night. In addition, sleeping with your head elevated at night will often help decrease swelling around the eyes. The second role is to help determine when your eyes have stopped changing so that corrective surgery can commence if necessary. A third role is to help you watch for the rare serious problems associated with TED that need prompt treatment. This may involve some degree of vision loss.
Problems associated with thyroid eye disease
Dry irritated eyes
TED may cause you to experience dry, irritated and often teary eyes. This is usually due to the eyelids retracting and or protruding. When the eyelids do not close completely at night, the cornea (clear front portion of the eye) dries out and becomes quite uncomfortable. The use of lubricating ointment for the eye at night and artificial tears during the day can provide a great deal of relief. Do not be afraid to use the tears frequently, as much as every 1/2 to 1 hour if necessary.
TED can cause swelling, irritation and scarring of the muscles that move the eyes. This can lead to double vision. Double vision may not be present all the time, sometimes it is noticeable only when looking in certain directions, while in other patients it is always present. Often the amount of double vision will change week to week. At times it can disappear completely without treatment. Once the double vision has been stable for at least several months, surgery can be performed to correct it if necessary. Dr. Dailey will refer you to a referring provider for the surgery.
TED can cause scarring in the eyelid muscles. This scar tissue contracts or shortens, causing the eyelid to retract and increasing the white showing above and below the colored part of the eye. The amount of retraction tends to be variable, often changing week to week. In some patients the retraction will disappear with time. In addition to contributing to an unusual appearance of the eyes, the eyelid retraction can cause significant dryness, irritation and tearing. Light sensitivity is another common complaint. Severe drying of the front of the eye can occasionally lead to vision loss.
It is usually preferred to wait for the eyelid position to stop changing before proceeding with surgery. Surgery involves moving the eyelids into a more normal position. In the upper eyelids this is usually performed by removing or stretching the scarred muscles. In the lower eyelids, a graft is often needed to help push the eyelid upward. Eyelid repositioning can make a tremendous difference in both the feel and appearance of the eyes.
TED can cause an accumulation of fluid in the fat and muscles around and behind the eye. This can push the eye itself outward making it much more prominent. Coupled with eyelid retraction this can alter the appearance and comfort of the eye. Although less variable than eyelid retraction, the protrusion of the eye can return to normal on its own. After being stable for several months or more, it is sometimes desirable to surgically move the eye into a more normal position. This can be accomplished by removing a portion of the bones surrounding the eye. The swollen fat and muscles around the eye can then fall into the extra space, allowing the eye to move backward. This can go a long way toward returning the eyes to their pre-thyroid appearance and relieve the relentless pressure and irritation most patients feel around their eyes.
Decreased vision can occur in TED for several reasons. Exposure and irritation of the cornea (clear front portion of the eye) occurs secondary to eyelid retraction and eye protrusion. Drops, ointment, eyelid repositioning or eye repositioning may be needed depending on the patients needs to improve vision. The other cause of decreased vision, but more rare, is compression of the main nerve from the eye to the brain. This occurs behind the eye when the muscles that move the eye become extremely swollen and press on the nerve. If your vision decreases significantly, bring this to the doctor’s attention promptly. Often, medications taken by mouth will return vision to normal. Surgery and/or radiation treatments are occasionally necessary to restore vision.
Many people with TED have eyes that appear to have prematurely aged. Swelling of the eyelids is one of the reasons for this. Additionally, a fluid accumulation in the normal fat around the eyes causes this fat to bulge outward becoming visible as "bags" of the eyelids. If this does not go away on its own, it can be surgically removed.
Although thyroid disease can cause multiple problems with the eyes, there is quite a bit that can be done to help. Once your eyes have stabilized, we can plan a course of treatment to correct the problems you find to be most troublesome. It will often be necessary to come to the office several times over several months so we can measure and examine your eyes. Bring old photographs that show your face when you were younger and before you developed the eye/orbit disease. These can be useful during your initial office visit. Photographs from before your eyes were affected by the thyroid condition and more recent ones that show how long your eyes have looked abnormal can be very helpful. Together, with patience and perseverance, we can do a lot to return your eyes to a more normal appearance and comfort level.
To schedule a consultation with Dr. Dailey call 503-494-3020.