What is hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce sufficient amounts of the thyroid hormone. As the thyroid gland plays an important role in the normal functioning of the body, a deficiency of the thyroid hormone can have multiple effects on the body and its proper functioning.
- Underactive thyroid / Low thyroid
Is hypothyroidism a medical emergency?
Hypothyroidism is not a medical emergency.
Types of hypothyroidism
An underactive thyroid can be classified as the following types:
- Primary hypothyroidism: Which occurs when the fault is with the thyroid gland and it fails to produce enough thyroid hormone in spite of receiving sufficient stimulation to do so.
- Central hypothyroidism: Which occurs when the thyroid gland does not receive enough stimulation to produce the thyroid hormone.
- Secondary hypothyroidism: The pituitary gland does not provide sufficient stimulation via thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) to the thyroid gland.
- Tertiary hypothyroidism: There is an inadequate release of the thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) from the hypothalamus to stimulate the pituitary gland and subsequently the thyroid gland.
- Congenital hypothyroidism: This occurs in newborn infants when there is a developmental defect of the thyroid gland or an inborn error in the metabolism of the thyroid hormone.
Hypothyroidism results when the levels of the thyroid hormones in the body are low. The following may cause underactive thyroid are:
- Primary hypothyroidism:
- Iodine deficiency
- Autoimmune thyroiditis
- Subacute granulomatous thyroiditis, subacute lymphocytic thyroiditis
- Postpartum thyroiditis
- Acute infectious thyroiditis
- Previous thyroidectomy
- Previous radio-iodine treatment
- Previous external beam radiotherapy to the neck
- Central hypothyroidism:
- Lesions or tumors affecting the pituitary gland
- Surgery or radiation to the pituitary gland
- Vascular disorders of the brain
- Trauma to the brain
- Autoimmune diseases
- Infiltrative diseases: Hemochromatosis, thalassemia
- Infections: Tuberculosis, mycoses, syphilis
- Congenital hypothyroidism:
- Thyroid dysgenesis: Thyroid is missing at birth
- Thyroid dyshormonogenesis: Error in thyroid production and metabolism
- Maternal antibodies or radio-iodine transfer
- Maternal iodine deficiency
Risk factors for hypothyroidism
There is an increased risk of underactive thyroid with the following:
- Gender: Women are more at risk of developing Underactive Thyroid
- Age: The elderly age group are at a greater risk
- Family History: Of thyroid disease
- Presence of autoimmune disease
- Previously treated with radio-iodine or anti-thyroid medications
- Received radiotherapy to the neck or the upper part of the chest
- Previous thyroid surgery
- Recent pregnancy or delivery (within 6-8 months)
Signs & symptoms of hypothyroidism
The symptoms and signs of an underactive thyroid may include:
- Tiredness and lethargy
- Intolerance to cold
- Inability to remember and concentrate
- Constipation and indigestion
- Weight gain
- Poor appetite
- Difficulty breathing
- Hoarseness of voice
- Heavy bleeding during periods and/or irregular periods
- Decreased hearing
- Blurring of vision
- Abnormal sensations
The following are the signs of an underactive thyroid:
- Dry and rough skin
- Cool hands and feet
- Hair loss
- Slow pulse rate
- Swelling of the limbs
- Myxedema (mucopolysaccharide deposits on the skin)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Delayed relaxation of tendon reflexes
The investigations that are done to establish a diagnosis of hypothyroidism include:
- Laboratory tests -
- Thyroid profile: To measure the levels of TSH, T3, and T4 in the blood
- Imaging tests -
- Ultrasound of the neck and thyroid
- Color flow doppler scanning of the thyroid
- Fine needle aspiration biopsy - If nodules are found in the thyroid
Diagnosis of hypothyroidism
The diagnosis of an underactive thyroid is established based on medical history, clinical evaluation, and results of the investigations done. The diagnosis can be established as follows based on the levels of TSH in relation to T4:
- Normal TSH and Normal T4 - Normal thyroid function
- Elevated TSH and Low T4 - Overt hypothyroidism
- Normal/Low TSH and Low T4 - Central hypothyroidism
- Elevated TSH and normal T4 - Subclinical hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism treatment options
The treatment of Hypothyroidism aims to reverse the progression of the condition and return the levels of the TSH and the T4 to normal levels.
A. Medical management
The medical management of low thyroid includes:
- Synthetic thyroid hormone: Levothyroxine: It acts by restoring the thyroid hormone levels and reverses the progress and the symptoms of hypothyroidism. In individuals who are young and healthy, the full replacement dose is started and the TSH and T4 levels are regularly monitored. In the elderly and those with heart disease, small doses are given first and gradually increased to the required dose over a period of time.
- In central hypothyroidism, T4 levels are monitored regularly while levothyroxine is being given
- Hypothyroidism in pregnancy: In pregnant women with overt hypothyroidism,
- Levothyroxine is given till the TSH levels are in the range for that particular trimester
- TSH levels are assessed every 4 weeks in the first half of pregnancy
- TSH levels are assessed again at the beginning of the second half of the pregnancy
- In women already taking Levothyroxine before their pregnancy - 2 additional doses of the current dose need to be taken. The extra doses are given on two separate days in the week. This is started at the beginning of pregnancy.
- Subclinical hypothyroidism: Levothyroxine supplementation helps to reduce cholesterol levels, arterial wall stiffness, and improves blood pressure, and has beneficial effects on the heart. It also helps to improve the iron-deficiency anemia that may be present.
- Myxedema coma: Levothyroxine is given intravenously (IV)
Complications of hypothyroidism
The complications of hypothyroidism may include the following:
- Goiter: The overactivity of the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone results in an increase in its size, which in turn can affect swallowing and breathing
- Heart problems: Increased risk of heart disease and heart failure
- Mental health issues: Depression, memory loss, and reduced mental acuity
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Myxedema coma: Prolonged uncontrolled Low thyroid can lead to extreme cold intolerance, extreme fatigue, drowsiness, and finally coma
- Infertility in women: As low thyroid hormone levels affect ovulation
- Congenital birth defects: Children born to mothers with untreated Low thyroid are at a greater risk of being born with severe physical and mental birth defects
- Untreated hypothyroidism in infants can cause severe mental retardation
The complications of treatment with levothyroxine may include:
- Atrial fibrillation
- Increased excitability
- Possible angina
- In individuals with adrenal insufficiency that is present along with Low thyroid, it can lead to an adrenal crisis if adrenal insufficiency is not treated before starting the treatment for hypothyroidism.
- Aggressive thyroid hormone replacement can cause severe heart problems in individuals already suffering from heart disease.
- Increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures in the elderly if the hormone replacement is not properly monitored.
- Individuals with severe psychological illness may see an increase in the intensity of their symptoms such as mania, or psychosis.
- Temporary worsening of vision may occur in some individuals.
The prognosis for hypothyroidism is good when diagnosed early and managed well. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to severe complications and death.
When to contact the doctor or hospital/how to identify the emergency or complications?
It is advisable to seek medical attention if any of the symptoms and signs of hypothyroidism are noticed.
Indications for hospitalization if required
Hospitalization is usually not required for hypothyroidism but may be needed if complications need to be managed.
- Screening is recommended especially in women over the age of 35 years once in every 5 years. And more frequent screening is required for high-risk categories such as:
- Pregnant women
- Women over the age of 60 years
- Individuals with type 1 diabetes, or other autoimmune diseases
- Individuals with a history of radiation to the neck or upper part of the chest
- Screening for central hypothyroidism should be performed in all children with a familial history of central hypothyroidism and/or manifestations of hypothalamic-pituitary defects or lesions, such as failure to thrive, developmental delay, growth hormone (GH) deficiency, and delayed or precocious puberty.
- Screening for central hypothyroidism should be carried out in all patients with a personal or familial history of hypothalamic-pituitary lesions or diseases, moderate to severe head trauma, stroke, previous cranial irradiation, hemochromatosis, or iron overload, particularly when hypothyroid manifestations are present.
Suggested clinical specialist/departments to consult for this condition
Hypothyroidism will be attended to by specialists from the department of endocrinology.