Eye Doctor Helps Uncover Thyroid Disease

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“I went through a year of being very sick and nobody could figure out what was happening.”

Alexis, a 35-year-old teacher, remembers 2012 as the year she was hospitalized for three weeks for tremors, rapid heartbeat, and dehydration. No one could figure out what was wrong. When she returned to work, her health had deteriorated so much that even her students noticed something was wrong.

Shortly after that, she happened to go in to get her annual eye exam. She explained her symptoms to her eye doctor, Keith Smithson, OD at Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry. As a result of the comprehensive eye exam, Dr. Smithson suspected Alexis might have an issue with her thyroid and recommended Alexis see her primary care physician urgently.

A thyroid ultrasound and blood work led to a diagnosis of Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid gland. The thyroid can affect the function of most of the body’s organs, including the heart. Alexis shared that her doctors said her condition was quite serious. In fact, they said if it hadn’t been caught when it was, she could have had a heart attack and even died.

Alexis is thankful for her eye doctor and that a routine eye exam played such a critical role in her health. She reflects on being able to open up and share her symptoms with her eye doctor, “Because I had been going to Dr. Smithson for so long and had that relationship, it really helped me to feel comfortable.”

Now healthy and looking back at her experience, Alexis is grateful she had the support of her eye doctor in helping her get the care she needed.

Watch Alexis’ story:


  • Barbara Smoot says:

    With respect, I ask, if a hospital can’t discover what is wrong with a patient after 3 weeks there, how can an eye doctor? It just doesn’t make sense (ref. article on detecting thyroid disease by eye doctor). Really?

    • Sandy Wilson says:

      The medical community often fails us unfortunately.

    • Lisa says:

      You’d be surprised how few doctors there are that understand Thyroid Disease. I have it and when I finally found a doctor who helped me, I was so thankful.

    • Phyllis says:

      No, a hospital and many doctors do not know how to diagnose this disease. I know as I am living proof and this lady is very fortuanate. I went to my opthalmolgist for 3 months, very often, with the bulging eyes and he never once diagnosed me and even went ahead and did cataract surgeries which one month later led to double vision which is now a permanent issue due to damage muscles behind my eyes. Amazing that you trust in a recommended, high rated doctor and he could not have sent me to a primary or as really should have happened, a endocrinologist. It was then, after the damage was permanently done that I got a proper diagnosis of Graves Opthalmopathy. It did not attack my heart but could have as it did this young lady. My eyes were bulging and I had no idea and trusted the doctor. Yes, they make big mistakes so its wonderful her doctor caught it right away.

    • Jennifer Elliott says:

      Actually I went to my eye dr for a routine eye exam. He saw cholesterol in my eyes and sent me to my primary care physician. Had bloodwork done and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m happy for you that you have never been confronted w the battle of finding competent thyroid care….its humbling to say the least how often it goes undiagnosed and improperly medicated, the years of ones life battling the medical arena just to get help. Unfortunately it is quite difficult for many.

  • Truth Hurts says:

    Because today’s hospitals care about guessing, treating, and then prescribing for an issue. Never about curing.

  • CJ says:

    Trust me, go to any online thyroid support group and you will find thousands of anguished and angry posts from people who have not been properly diagnosed for 5,10, 15, 20 or more years and once diagnosed, not properly medicated. It is not surprising this diagnosis was overlooked, especially if only the TSH was used to rely on. I agree, this article could have gone a little more in depth, it sounds like she was hospitalized due to “thyroid storm”. Not sure why it was missed, maybe clinically it presents like other things. I am sure glad she was diagnosed, though, untreated Graves can cause severe complications. Pronounced Graves Eye Disease can be spotted easily because the eyes protrude noticeably, but even if it weren’t overt, I’m sure a trained eye doctor could spot the degeneration of tissue on close inspection. This article, to me, is totally plausible, excepting what seems to me like baffling incompetence at the hospital : (! If you think you may have thyroid issues (hypothyroid, thyroid cancer, hyperthyroid, Graves, thyroiditis, Hashimoto’s, etc) Stop The Thyroid Madness (website or facebook) is an excellent resource for taking your health into your own hands. The thyroid is involved in over 300 functions in the body, so if your thyroid is even a little wonky, it can ruin your day!

    • Leela says:

      Over twenty years for me and then thyroid cancer. I finally got diagnosed last year. Getting doctors to help you get the right med and the right dosage has been another nightmare in itself.

  • Jennifer Elliott says:

    Actually that’s how I found out I had a thyroid problem. Went to my eye doctor for a routine exam and he could see cholesterol in my eyes. He sent me to my primary care physician. I had bloodwork done and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism

  • Karen Van Bruggen says:

    I used to work for an ophthalmologist, and this story is totally plausible. I also have a mother-in-law who had severe undiagnosed Graves Disease for many months even though she was seeing a primary care nurse practitioner and went to the ER at one point for her symptoms. They did every test under the sun except the one that needed to be done, which was a thyroid lab work up. Graves Disease causes hyperthyroid, not hypothyroid, fyi. It can make eyes bulge out and cause double vision. That is nothing compared to what it can do to the rest of your body. It is just one of several conditions that competent eye doctors can detect when they do a routine eye exam. Many diseases, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Graves disease, to name a few, leave tell tale signs in the retina or the tissues around the eyeball.

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