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Interview with Interview with Dr. Jan Ulbrecht on Grave’s disease

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Medical Minute—3:10

Steve Williams: We’re visiting with Dr. Jan Ulbrecht from Mount Nittany Medical Center. Dr. Ulbrecht, let’s talk about Grave’s disease. What is Grave’s disease?

Dr. Ulbrecht: Grave’s disease is the most common cause of an overactive thyroid gland. The thyroid is a gland in the neck that’s responsible for how fast things happen in the body. I like to think of it as the cruise control in the body. And every organ – brain, heart, lungs, everything –
functions at the speed we’re used to as normal, because the thyroid tells them what to do. Grave’s disease, then, is a disease where the thyroid becomes overactive and drives everything to happen much faster than normal.

Steve Williams: Should listeners be aware of any specific symptoms associated with Grave’s disease?

Dr. Ulbrecht: Well, again, it’s everything speeding up, and at the extreme it can be very obvious. The brain starts moving very quickly, and the person becomes very tense, anxious, irritable, has trouble sleeping, fast heartbeats, frequent urination, frequent bowel movements, hot all the time, losing weight, perspiring all the time, anxious, tense, worn out, weak, tremulous, and so forth. On the other hand, at the more subtle levels, the symptoms can be very subtle. So, people prone to thyroid disease, because of their family history, should be tested rather frequently because of that problem.

Steve Williams: Can you talk a little bit about the treatment options for people with Grave’s disease?

Dr. Ulbrecht: Grave’s disease is a problem of the immune system and not the thyroid. The immune system is supposed to defend you against things – as we all know – and in this case, the system by mistake attacks the thyroid like it doesn’t belong. And that attack of the immune system irritates the thyroid to become overactive. Unfortunately, we can’t treat that immune system problem, and so we’re left at treating the thyroid even though the thyroid is in fact a relatively innocent bystander. Basically, there are two treatments. One is to destroy the thyroid and there are two ways to do that. One is surgery, and one is with radioactive iodine. The surgery is about two days in the hospital or something like that. The radioactive iodine is a single pill that is swallowed that destroys the thyroid. And what that gets you is certainty. You know that forever more, you have to take one replacement thyroid pill per day, have one blood test per year, and that should be that. The other way to treat Grave’s hyperthyroidism is with medications that suppress the thyroid, and that requires a lot more monitoring, but is very much a viable choice and many patients choose it, because occasionally the underlying disease goes away, and then no further treatment is needed.

Steve Williams: And where can community members learn more about local services to test for and treat Grave’s disease?

Dr. Ulbrecht: If you have concerns or questions you can go to mountnittany.org.

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