Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone. An underactive thyroid can leave you feeling low in energy, tired and depressed.
Treatment for underactive thyroid is usually successful and involves taking a hormone tablet to replace the hormone your body isn't making.
The thyroid gland
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in your neck. It produces two thyroid hormones: tri-iodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).
Thyroid hormones help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.
Many of the body's functions slow down when the thyroid doesn't produce enough of these hormones.
Who is affected?
Both men and women can have an underactive thyroid, but it is more common in women and in people over 50 years of age.
Around 20 babies every year in New Zealand are born with an underactive thyroid.³ To detect this, almost all babies born in New Zealand are screened for congenital hypothyroidism using a blood spot test, normally carried out within 48 hours of birth.
What causes underactive thyroid?
Most cases are caused either by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland and damaging it, or by damage to the thyroid by medications or treatments for thyroid cancer or overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). These and other causes are described in the table below.
|Thyroid cancer treatment||
|Iodine deficiency disorder||
|Pituitary gland problems||
What are the symptoms of underactive thyroid?
The symptoms of an underactive thyroid are often mild and easy to miss. They develop slowly over a number of months or even years. You may put symptoms such as feeling tired or gaining weight down to poor diet or simply getting older. It's also easy to confuse them for symptoms of other conditions.
As the condition worsens, your body's functioning continues to slow and the signs and symptoms become more obvious.
|Common symptoms:||Symptoms if untreated:|
How is underactive thyroid diagnosed?
Many symptoms of underactive thyroid are the same as other diseases, so diagnosis cannot be based just on symptoms. To diagnose underactive thyroid your doctor will:
- Ask questions about factors such as:
- your symptoms (such as tiredness, weight gain, constipation, cold sensitivity and changes to your hair, skin or nails)
- if you have a family history of thyroid problems
- if you had any operations, x-rays or illnesses
- medicines you may be taking.
- Do a physical check including:
- measuring your weight
- examining your hair and nails for brittleness
- checking your pulse and blood pressure
- looking for swelling of your thyroid gland
- testing your muscle strength.
- Take blood tests such as:
How is underactive thyroid treated?
Your doctor will take findings from your medical history, physical examination and blood tests into consideration when deciding whether treatment is needed.
- If you have low thyroid hormone level but no symptoms, your doctor might suggest more blood tests every 6 or 12 months to monitor your thyroid function.
- If you have low thyroid hormone level and symptoms, they may recommend you take regular tablets of thyroid hormone (specifically one called T4, also known as thyroxine or levothyroxine).
- Thyroxine needs to be started slowly, so the dose you take and how often are gradually built up to reach the right level. This usually takes about 6 weeks.
- Most people start to feel better in a week or two. Your symptoms will probably go away within a few months. But you will likely need to keep taking the pills from now on.
- Having regular blood tests every 6 to 12 months is important because it allows your doctor to check your thyroid hormone level and adjust the dosage of your thyroxine if necessary.
- The amount of thyroxine you need can change over time because the function of your thyroid gland may change over time.
- It is also important to not take more thyroxine than has been recommended by your doctor because this may contribute to osteoporosis and in older people, there is debate if it increases heart risks and other problems.
Thyroxine and pregnancy
Talk to your doctor if you are using thyroxine and are planning to or have become pregnant. This is because the amount of thyroxine you need can increase.