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Welcome to our health education library. The information shared below is provided to you as an educational and informational source only and is not intended to replace a medical examination or consultation, or medical advice given to you by a physician or medical professional.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone for the body’s requirements. Thyroid hormone is needed to regulate body functions, including metabolism, breathing, body temperature, muscle strength, cholesterol levels, brain development, etc. Insufficient thyroid hormone will result in the slowing down of body processes. Many cases of slow metabolism are attributed to hypothyroidism.

What causes hypothyroidism?

There are several causes of hypothyroidism, the most common of which is the autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s disease. In an autoimmune disorder, antibodies produced by the immune system attack the body’s tissues and organs. In Hashimoto’s disease, also called chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, the antibodies produced by the immune system attack thyroid cells, affecting their ability to produce thyroid hormone.

The other causes of hypothyroidism are related to treatments for hyperthyroidism (overproduction of thyroid hormone), such as surgery, radioactive iodine therapy and even medication. These treatments involve the removal of part or all of the diseased thyroid gland (surgery) or killing diseased thyroid gland cells (radioactive iodine therapy, medication), leaving the thyroid to produce too little thyroid hormone.

In some cases, hypothyroidism may be congenital, where babies are born with underdeveloped or malfunctioning thyroid glands.

Who is at risk of developing hypothyroidism?

Women and people over 60 are at greater risk of developing hypothyroidism. The following factors also increase an individual’s chance of developing the disease and other thyroid disorders:

  • A previous thyroid problem
  • An incidence of thyroid problem within the family
  • An incidence of autoimmune disease, such as lupus, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.
  • Pregnancy or childbirth within the past six months
  • Radiation treatment on the thyroid, neck or chest
  • Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder among females

Because many thyroid diseases present no apparent symptoms, it is important that people get routinely tested. The American Thyroid Association recommends that adults 35 years old and up, particularly women, have a blood test every five years.

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

Thyroid diseases are mostly subclinical in nature, meaning that they don’t manifest clear symptoms at the onset. Because of this, many people afflicted with hypothyroidism do not know that they have the disease until it has already worsened. It would do well for individuals to pay more serious attention to the following seemingly normal conditions as these could indicate the presence of hypothyroidism: weakness, weight gain or inability to lose weight, fatigue, slow heart rate, dry and coarse skin and hair, sensitivity to cold temperature, depression, moodiness, changes in menstrual cycles, muscle aches and cramps, forgetfulness, constipation and lack of sexual desire.

If the cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease, a person should watch out for signs of goiter and a sensation of fullness in the throat area.

How is hypothyroidism diagnosed?

A doctor checking for hypothyroidism will usually perform a blood test to measure the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level. A high TSH level and a low thyroid hormone (T4) level indicate that a patient has an underactive thyroid gland. A low TSH level and a low T4 level, on the other hand, indicate that the cause of low T4 level is due to problems with the pituitary gland.

Another way by which hypothyroidism can be diagnosed is through a thyroid auto antibody test that detects the presence of thyroid auto antibodies; these antibodies are produced only by people with Hashimoto’s disease.

How is hypothyroidism treated?

The most common treatment for hypothyroidism is through the administration of synthetic thyroxine, which is identical to the thyroid hormone. Synthetic thyroxine is given in the form of a pill that is to be taken once a day, preferably in the morning. Patients may notice a slight improvement in their condition within two weeks of the treatment. It may take one or two months before the thyroid would fully respond to medication and the patient to feel its full effects.

What are the complications of hypothyroidism?

Unless addressed, the high level of thyroid hormone that results from hypothyroidism may lead to the enlargement of the thyroid gland, a condition known as a goiter. Hypothyroidism may also increase the presence of high cholesterol and, although it happens rarely, may also lead to severe depression, heart failure or myxedema coma, wherein body processes slow down to life-threatening levels. These severe conditions require immediate medical attention.

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