Bulging eyes (exophthalmos)

Proptosis and exophthalmos are medical terms that describe when a person’s eyes appear to be bulging or pushed forward in their sockets.  As the eyes are pushed forward, eyelid coverage is reduced, giving a near-constant appearance of ‘wide open’ eyes.

While proptosis itself is not a dangerous condition, it is generally a symptom of another systemic problem.  The most likely culprit is Graves’ disease, a condition where the thyroid gland produces too much hormone.  Graves’ disease is ten times more common in women and occurs in approximately two percent of U. S. women.  In addition to bulging eyes, Graves’ disease may cause sweating, muscle weakness, nervousness, weight loss and an increased heart rate.  Your doctor will order a thyroid study to confirm Graves’ disease, and medication is the first course of treatment.  Proptosis due to Graves’ disease typically occurs over months or years.

The more sudden onset of bulging eyes, or bulging in just one eye, may be indicative of other causes such as orbital tumors or swelling caused by trauma or infection.  Diagnostic tests such as a CT scan or MRI may help identify the cause.

If left untreated, proptosis can cause additional eye problems such as reduced vision, reduced eyelid function and eye movement, dry eyes, corneal irritation due to decreased eyelid coverage, and potentially irreversible optic nerve damage.  Whatever the cause, patients with proptosis need to be examined by an eye doctor.