A “Grave” Concern About The Heart - Graves’ Disease and Heart Rate
“What’s so scary about Graves’ disease?” I see this comment online a fair amount to which I think - "What isn’t scary about Graves’ disease?" My experience with Graves’ was a whirlwind, and I felt completely out of control in my own body.
Noticing something was wrong
Shaky hands, high heart rate, weight loss, heat sensitivity - I had very classic symptoms. The scariest was the rapid heart rate. I recall the first time I noticed that something was very wrong. I was trying to fall asleep, and my husband asked if I was okay. He could feel the heavy pounding of my heart as he was lying next to me. As I observed my heart, I found that the beating was not only very strong, but also incredibly fast. I was puzzled. Something stressful happened earlier that day, but in that moment I felt relatively relaxed.
The following morning I called my endocrinologist (who at the time had me on medication to increase thyroid production - yes, I was either misdiagnosed with hypothyroidism, or I developed Graves’ disease in the short amount of time that I was taking that medication). I also made an appointment with my primary care doctor. Over the next few days, while I was going to these appointments, my heart rate became more apparent in different situations. Walking up the stairs to the subway felt taxing. During restorative yoga class, I was unable to relax because the pounding of my heart was too distracting.
A high heart rate
After having an EKG to rule out various heart issues, waiting for my old thyroid medication to be completely out of my system, and finding a new endocrinologist who took my concerns seriously, I finally received my Graves’ disease diagnosis and was put on beta blockers while I navigated my new thyroid medication. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, it took more time than I would have liked for all of this to get sorted out. While I waited, I navigated the world with a pounding heart.
A normal resting heart rate is generally 60-100 beats per minute. Mine was about 120. Going for a gentle walk or simply walking up a flight of stairs made my heart pound heavily as if I were doing intense cardio. I became too scared to work out, fearing that my heart literally wouldn’t be able to take the intensity. I rested as much as I could.1
I’m a yoga and group fitness teacher, which could have made this situation a nightmare. Fortunately, I was not teaching dance or cardio-based classes at the time, and I was careful to briefly demonstrate movements without pushing myself too hard. Much of my class time is spent discussing alignment and walking around the room offering adjustments to students. This sometimes means dashing from one side of the room to another along with a lot of talking. If I wasn’t mindful of my breathing, my heart rate would increase. This extra attention while focusing on caring for my students wasn’t more than I could handle, and I never felt unsafe, but it certainly was a greater amount of emotional energy to navigate.
Left untreated, Graves’ disease can cause damage to the heart, so it’s important to seek out appropriate medical care. As scary as my situation was, I am very grateful that I never experienced a thyroid storm. A thyroid storm is a sudden and intense onset of symptoms - heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature can sharply rise, and without immediate medical treatment, it can be fatal. Very scary, indeed.2,3
Regaining control of my heart rate with Graves' disease
Feeling out of control in my own body was incredibly frightening. I am now two years post-thyroidectomy, and it’s miraculous the difference I feel. My resting heart rate is consistently within a comfortable and normal range, and I feel like my body is working in harmony with itself again.
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Did you know that research shows up to 50% of people with Graves' disease develop TED?