Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone.
Myxedema; Adult hypothyroidism
The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck just below the voice box (larynx). It releases hormones that control metabolism.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is inflammation of the thyroid gland, which damages the gland's cells. Autoimmune or Hashimoto's thyroiditis, in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, is the most common example of this. Some women develop hypothyroidism after pregancy (often referred to as "postpartum thyroiditis").
Other common causes of hypothyroidism include:
- Congenital (birth) defects
- Radiation treatments to the neck to treat different cancers, which may also damage the thyroid gland
- Radioactive iodine used to treat an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- Surgical removal of part or all of the thyroid gland, done to treat other thyroid problems
- Viral thyroiditis, which may cause hyperthyroidism and is often followed by temporary or permanent hypothyroidism
Certain drugs can cause hypothyroidism, including:
- Drugs used for hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), such as propylthiouracil (PTU) and methimazole
- Radiation to the brain
Sheehan syndrome, a condition that may occur in a woman who bleeds severely during pregnancy or childbirth and causes destruction of the pituitary gland
Risk factors include:
- Age over 50 years
- Being female
Late symptoms, if left untreated:
A physical examination may reveal a smaller than normal thyroid gland, although sometimes the gland is normal size or even enlarged (goiter). The examination may also reveal:
- Brittle nails
- Coarse facial features
- Pale or dry skin, which may be cool to the touch
- Swelling of the arms and legs
- Thin and brittle hair
A chest x-ray may show an enlarged heart.
Laboratory tests to determine thyroid function include:
Lab tests may also reveal:
In most cases, thyroid levels return to normal with proper treatment. However, thyroid hormone replacement must be taken for the rest of your life.
Myxedema coma can result in death.
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of hypothyroidism (or myxedema).
If you are being treated for hypothyroidism, call your doctor if:
- You develop chest pain or rapid heartbeat
- You have an infection
- Your symptoms get worse or do not improve with treatment
- You develop new symptoms
Myxedema coma, the most severe form of hypothyroidism, is rare. It may be caused by an infection, illness, exposure to cold, or certain medications in people with untreated hypothyroidism.
Symptoms and signs of myxedema coma include:
Other complications are:
People with untreated hypothyroidism are at increased risk for:
- Giving birth to a baby with birth defects
- Heart disease because of higher levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol
- Heart failure
People treated with too much thyroid hormone are at risk for angina or heart attack, as well as osteoporosis (thinning of the bones).
The purpose of treatment is to replace the thyroid hormone that is lacking. Levothyroxine is the most commonly used medication. Doctors will prescribe the lowest dose possible that effectively relieves symptoms and brings your TSH level to a normal range. If you have heart disease or you are older, your doctor may start with a very small dose.
Lifelong therapy is required unless you have a condition called transient viral thyroiditis.
You must continue taking your medication even when your symptoms go away. When starting your medication, your doctor may check your hormone levels every 2 - 3 months. After that, your thyroid hormone levels should be monitored at least every year.
Important things to remember when you are taking thyroid hormone are:
- Do NOT stop taking the medication when you feel better. Continue taking the medication exactly as directed by your doctor.
- If you change brands of thyroid medicine, let your doctor know. Your levels may need to be checked.
- Some dietary changes can change the way your body absorbs the thyroid medicine. Talk with your doctor if you are eating a lot of soy products or are on a high-fiber diet.
- Thyroid medicine works best on an empty stomach and when taken 1 hour before any other medications.
- Do NOT take thyroid hormone with fiber supplements, calcium, iron, multivitamins, aluminum hydroxide antacids, colestipol, or medicines that bind bile acids.
After you start taking replacement therapy, tell your doctor if you have any symptoms of increased thyroid activity (hyperthyroidism) such as:
- Rapid weight loss
- Restlessness or shakiness
Myxedema coma is a medical emergency that occurs when the body's level of thyroid hormones becomes extremely low. It is treated with intravenous thyroid hormone replacement and steroid medications. Some patients may need supportive therapy (oxygen, breathing assistance, fluid replacement) and intensive-care nursing.
There is no prevention for hypothyroidism.
Screening tests in newborns can detect hypothyroidism that is present from birth (congenital hypothyroidism).
Fatourechi V. Subclinical hypothyroidism: an update for primary care physicians. Mayo Clin Proc. 2009;84(1):65-71.
Ladenson P, Kim M. Thyroid. In: Goldman L and Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders; 2007:chap 244.
Vaidya B, Pearce SH. Management of hypothyroidism in adults. BMJ. 2008;337.
Allahabadia A, Razvi S, Abraham P, Franklyn J. Diagnosis and treatment of primary hypothyroidism. BMJ. 2009 Mar 26;338.
Review Date: 4/19/2010
Reviewed By: Ari S. Eckman, MD, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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