Hypothyroidism, also called underactive thyroid or low thyroid, is a common disorder of the endocrine system in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. It can cause a number of symptoms, such as poor ability to tolerate cold, a feeling of tiredness, constipation, depression, and weight gain.Occasionally there may be swelling of the front part of the neck due to goiter.Untreated hypothyroidism during pregnancy can lead to delays in growth and intellectual development in the baby, which is called cretinism.
Worldwide, too little iodine in the diet is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. In countries with enough iodine in the diet, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is the autoimmune condition Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Less common causes include: previous treatment with radioactive iodine, injury to the hypothalamus or the anterior pituitary gland, certain medications, a lack of a functioning thyroid at birth, or previous thyroid surgery. The diagnosis of hypothyroidism, when suspected, can be confirmed with blood tests measuring thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine levels.
Thyroid hormone is required for the normal functioning of numerous tissues in the body. In health, the thyroid gland predominantly secretes thyroxine (T4), which is converted into triiodothyronine (T3) in other organs by the selenium-dependent enzyme iodothyronine deiodinase.Triiodothyronine binds to the thyroid hormone receptor in the nucleus of cells, where it stimulates the turning on of particular genes and the production of specific proteins. Additionally, the hormone binds to integrin αvβ3 on the cell membrane, thereby stimulating the sodium–hydrogen antiporter and processes such as formation of blood vessels and cell growth.In blood, almost all thyroid hormone (99.97%) is bound to plasma proteins such as thyroxine-binding globulin; only the free unbound thyroid hormone is biologically active.
The thyroid gland is the only source of thyroid hormone in the body; the process requires iodine and the amino acid tyrosine. Iodine in the bloodstream is taken up by the gland and incorporated into thyroglobulin molecules. The process is controlled by the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH, thyrotropin), which is secreted by the pituitary. Not enough iodine, or not enough TSH, can result in decreased production of thyroid hormones.
Pregnancy leads to marked changes in thyroid hormone physiology. The gland is increased in size by 10%, thyroxine production is increased by 50%, and iodine requirements are increased. Many women have normal thyroid function but have immunological evidence of thyroid autoimmunity (as evidenced by autoantibodies) or are iodine deficient, and develop evidence of hypothyroidism before or after giving birth.
Laboratory testing of thyroid stimulating hormone levels in the blood is considered the best initial test for hypothyroidism; a second TSH level is often obtained several weeks later for confirmation. Levels may be abnormal in the context of other illnesses, and TSH testing in hospitalized people is discouraged unless thyroid dysfunction is strongly suspected. An elevated TSH level indicates that the thyroid gland is not producing enough thyroid hormone, and free T4 levels are then often obtained.
TSH T4 Interpretation
Normal Normal Normal thyroid function
Elevated Low Overt hypothyroidism
Normal/low Low Central hypothyroidism
Elevated Normal Subclinical hypothyroidism
A diagnosis of hypothyroidism without any lumps or masses felt within the thyroid gland does not require thyroid imaging; however, if the thyroid feels abnormal, diagnostic imaging is then recommended. The presence of antibodies against thyroid peroxidase (TPO) makes it more likely that thyroid nodules are caused by autoimmune thyroiditis, but if there is any doubt, a needle biopsy may be required.