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Hypothyroidism: Underactive Thyroid Gland - Signs, Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

  • Published: 2014-11-09 (Revised/Updated 2017-01-30) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Information regarding Hypothyroidism, a condition caused when the thyroid gland does not produce enough of certain important hormones.

Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone. This condition is often called under-active thyroid. Hypothyroidism upsets the normal balance of chemical reactions in your body. The thyroid gland is located in the front lower part of your neck. Hormones released by the gland travel through your bloodstream and affect nearly every part of your body, from your heart and brain, to your muscles and skin. Too little iodine in the diet is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Women, especially those older than age 60, are more likely to have hypothyroidism.

Difference Between Hypothyroidism and Hyperthyroidism:

  • Hypothyroidism - Occurs when the gland is underactive, and can present itself at any age, but the risk increases as you get older, and it is most commonly triggered by genetics. Females are three times more likely than men to develop hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism causes symptoms such as slowed metabolism, tiredness, and weight gain. Having an underactive thyroid can decrease or slow down your bodily functions.
  • Hyperthyroidism - Hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism. It occurs when the thyroid is overactive, producing too much thyroid hormone. With hyperthyroidism, you may find yourself with more energy, as opposed to less. You may experience weight loss as opposed to weight gain. And you may feel anxious as opposed to depressed.

Main Document

"The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary depending upon the severity of the person's hormone deficiency."

'Hypothyroidism,' or under-active thyroid, is a condition in which a person's thyroid gland does not produce enough of certain important hormones. Women, particularly women over the age of 60, are more likely to experience hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism upsets the usual balance of chemical reactions in a person's body. It rarely causes symptoms in the early stages, although over time untreated hypothyroidism may cause several health issues such as joint pain, obesity, heart disease and infertility. Accurate thyroid function tests are available to diagnose hypothyroidism and treatment of it with synthetic thyroid hormone is usually simple, effective and safe after a person and their doctor find the right dose.

Symptoms of Hypothyroidism

The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism vary depending upon the severity of the person's hormone deficiency. In general, any issues a person experiences tend to develop slowly and over several years. At first, a person might barely notice the symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as weight gain or fatigue, or they might simply attribute them to aging. Yet as the person's metabolism continues to slow, they may develop more obvious signs and symptoms. The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:

People with untreated hypothyroidism can experience signs and symptoms that gradually become more severe. Constant stimulation of the person's thyroid gland to release more hormones might lead to an enlarged thyroid or, 'goiter.' The person may become more forgetful, their thought processes may slow down, or they may feel depressed. Advanced hypothyroidism is known as, 'myxedema,' and is rare, although when it occurs it may be life-threatening. Signs and symptoms of myxedema include decreased breathing, low blood pressure, decreased body temperature, unresponsiveness and coma. In extreme instances myxedema may be fatal.

Hypothyroidism and Infants

While hypothyroidism most often affects women who are middle-aged or older, anyone may develop the condition, to include infants. Initially, babies born without a thyroid gland, or with a gland that does not work appropriately, might have fewer signs and symptoms. When newborns do experience issues with hypothyroidism they can include the following:

An infant with hypothyroidism may experience yellowing of their skin and the whites of their eyes. In most instances, this occurs when a baby's liver cannot metabolize a substance called, 'bilirubin,' which usually forms when the body recycles old or damaged red blood cells. When hypothyroidism in infants is not treated, even mild instances may lead to severe physical and mental disabilities.

Generally, children and teenagers who develop hypothyroidism experience the same signs and symptoms adults do. They might also experience the following:

Causes of Hypothyroidism

When a person's thyroid does not produce enough hormones, the balance of chemical reactions in their body may be upset. There can be a number of causes, to include autoimmune disease, radiation therapy, treatment for hypothyroidism, certain medications and thyroid surgery.

The thyroid is a small and butterfly-shaped gland situated at the base of the front of a person's neck, just below their Adam's apple. Hormones produced by the thyroid gland, 'Triiodothyronine (T3),' and, 'Thyroxine (T4),' have a tremendous impact on a person's health, affecting every aspect of their metabolism. They maintain the rate at which a person's body uses fats and carbohydrates, helping to control a person's body temperature, influencing a person's heart rate, as well as assisting with regulation of the production of proteins.

Hypothyroidism results when a person's thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones. Hypothyroidism may be due to several factors, to include the following:

Risk Factors for Hypothyroidism

While anyone may develop hypothyroidism, a person is at increased risk if they are a woman over the age of 60, have autoimmune disease, or have a close relative such as a parent or grandparent with an autoimmune disease. Additional risk factors for hypothyroidism include having:

Complications of Hypothyroidism

Untreated hypothyroidism may lead to several health issues such as goiter, heart problems, mental health issues, peripheral neuropathy, myxedema, infertility or birth defects. What follows are descriptions of these potential complications.

Tests and Diagnosis for Hypothyroidism

Due to the fact that hypothyroidism is more prevalent in older women, some doctors recommend that older women be screened for the disorder during routine annual physical exams. Some doctors also recommend that pregnant women, or women thinking of becoming pregnant, be tested for hypothyroidism. Generally, your doctor might test for under-active thyroid if you are feeling increasingly tired, have dry skin, weight gain or constipation, or if you have prior thyroid issues or goiter.

A diagnosis of hypothyroidism is based upon a person's symptoms and the results of blood tests that measure the level of TSH and at times the level of the thyroid hormone, 'thyroxine.' A low level of thyroxine and high level of TSH indicate an under-active thyroid. The reason is because a person's pituitary produces more TSH in an effort to stimulate their thyroid gland into producing more thyroid hormone.

In the past, doctors were not able to detect hypothyroidism until symptoms were fairly advanced. Yet by using the sensitive TSH test, doctors are able to diagnose thyroid disorders far earlier, often times before a person experiences symptoms. Due to the fact that the TSH test is the best screening test, a person's doctor will most likely check TSH first and follow up with a thyroid hormone test if needed. TSH tests also play an important role in the management of hypothyroidism. The tests help a person's doctor to determine the appropriate dosage of medication, both at the start and over time. In addition, TSH tests are used to help diagnose a condition called subclinical hypothyroidism, which usually causes no outward signs or symptoms. In this condition, you have normal blood levels of triiodothyronine and thyroxine, but higher than normal levels of TSH. In this condition, a person has average blood levels of, 'triiodothyronine,' and, 'thyroxine,' yet higher than average levels of TSH.

Treatment and Medications

The standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves the daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone, 'levothyroxine.' The oral medication restores adequate hormone levels, reversing the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism. One to two weeks after a person begins treatment they will notice that they are feeling less fatigued. The medication also gradually lowers a person's cholesterol levels elevated by the disease and might reverse any weight gain. Treatment with levothyroxine is usually a life-long effort, but because the dosage a person needs may change their doctor is likely to check their TSH level each year.

Determining the proper dosage might take time. To determine the appropriate dosage of levothyroxine at the start, a person's doctor usually checks the person's level of TSH after 2-3 months. Excessive amounts of the hormone may cause side-effects which include:

If a person has coronary artery disease or severe hypothyroidism, their doctor might begin treatment with a smaller amount of medication and gradually increase their dosage. Progressive hormone replacement permits the person's heart to adjust to the increase in metabolism.

Levothyroxine causes almost no side-effects when used in the proper dose and is fairly inexpensive. If a person changes brands, it is important for them to let their doctor know to ensure they are still receiving the correct dosage. It is also important for them not to skip any doses, or to stop taking the medication because they are feeling better. Stopping the medication means their symptoms will gradually return.

Certain medications, supplements, as well as some foods might affect a person's ability to absorb levothyroxine. It is important to communicate with your doctor if you eat large amounts of soy products, or a high-fiber diet, or if you take medications such as:

Awareness: Thyroid and Hypothyroidism Awareness Information

Light blue awareness ribbonThe awareness ribbon color for thyroid awareness, including hypothyroidism, is light blue.

The month of January is Thyroid Awareness Month.

Thyroid Awareness Week begins on May 25 and continues till May 3.

World Thyroid Day (WTD), on May 25th each year, is dedicated to thyroid patients and to all who are committed to the study and treatment of thyroid diseases worldwide (Thyroid Federation International).

Facts: Hypothyroidism

How to Perform a Thyroid Neck Exam

Statistics: Hypothyroidism

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