Singer-songwriter and actress Missy Elliott, after seemingly disappearing into the shadows for the past three years, emerged to her public Thursday with the astonishing announcement that she's been battling Graves' disease. In the latest issue of People magazine, Elliott describes her struggles with the autoimmune disease that prevented her from doing many basic day-to-day activities, including driving and holding a pen.
While radiation treatments have helped the singer regain some control over her symptoms, the incurable disease is something she will have to live with for the rest of her life.
Many people are unfamiliar with Graves' disease unless they have had personal experience with it through diagnosis of friends, family, or even themselves. For those who have not heard of Graves', here are a few facts about the illness.
* Graves' disease is named for an Irish physician by the name of Robert Graves. The disease was first described by Graves in 1835.
* The disorder is approximately eight times more common in women than men, and those who develop the disease are most likely to notice symptoms after age 20. However, the disease can affect a person of either sex at any age.
* Graves' disease is a type of hyperthyroidism, meaning the thyroid gland is overactive. Unlike hyperthyroidism, however, Graves' is often accompanied by mild to severe inflammation and swelling of the tissue around the eyes. Rarely, the disease may be accompanied by Graves' ophthalmopathy, a bulging of the eyes, or pretibial myxedema, a thickening of the skin in front of the shins that tends to be red in color and lumpy.
* Graves' disease is non-contagious. It frequently occurs with no obvious cause, but is more likely to show up in people with a family history of autoimmune disorders. External stressors and infections are known to sometimes play a role in the disease.
* Common symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, muscle weakness, tremors, fatigue, eye irritation, double vision, difficulty concentrating, brittle hair, mood swings, weight loss, and rapid or irregular heartbeat.
* To test for Graves' disease, a doctor will perform blood tests to measure the amount of thyroid hormones T3 (triiodothyronine), T4 (thyroxine), and TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). Doctors will often also perform a physical examination to test for increased heart rate and an enlarged thyroid gland.
* Although the disease itself is incurable, there are treatments available to manage the symptoms. Antithyroid medications, radiation, and surgery are all available options, though replacement thyroid hormones are required throughout the patient's lifetime if he/she chooses to undergo radiation or surgery. Without these hormones, the patient will begin to suffer from hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland.
* Gail Devers, three-time Olympic track-and-field champion, was diagnosed with Graves' disease before ever competing in the Olympics. After undergoing radiation, Devers now takes thyroid replacement therapy and will for the rest of her life.
* Former President George H. W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush have both been diagnosed with Graves' Disease and treated.