Hypothyroidism – Underactive Thyroid

Hypothyroidism means a reduced level of thyroid hormone (thyroxine). This can cause various symptoms, the most common being: tiredness, weight gain, constipation, aches, dry skin, lifeless hair and feeling cold. Treatment is usually easy by taking a tablet each day to replace the missing thyroxine. Treatment usually works well and symptoms usually go.


             What is hypothyroidism?

Thyroxine is a hormone (body chemical) made by the thyroid gland in the neck. It is carried round the body in the bloodstream. It helps to keep the body’s functions (the metabolism) working at the correct pace. Hypothyroidism means that the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroxine. It is often called an underactive thyroid. This causes many of the body’s functions to slow down. 

(In contrast, if you have hyperthyroidism, you make too much thyroxine. This causes many of the body’s functions to speed up.)

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

A low level of thyroxine can cause many symptoms. Basically, many body functions slow down. Not all symptoms develop in all cases.

  • Symptoms that commonly occur include: tiredness, weight gain, constipation, aches, feeling cold, dry skin, lifeless hair, fluid retention, mental slowing, and depression.
  • Less common symptoms include: a hoarse voice, irregular or heavy menstrual periods in women, infertility, loss of sex drive, carpal tunnel syndrome (which causes pains and numbness in the hand), and memory loss or confusion in the elderly.

However, all these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, and sometimes the diagnosis is not obvious. Symptoms usually develop slowly, and gradually become worse over months or years as the level of thyroxine in the body gradually falls.

What are the possible complications of hypothyroidism?

If you have untreated hypothyroidism:

  • You have an increased risk of developing heart disease. This is because a low thyroxine level causes the blood lipids (cholesterol, etc) to rise.
  • If you are pregnant, you have an increased risk of developing some pregnancy complications. For example: pre-eclampsia, anaemia, premature labour, low birth weight, stillbirth, and serious bleeding after the birth.
  • Hypothyroid coma (myxoedema coma) is a very rare complication.

However, with treatment, the outlook is excellent. With treatment, symptoms usually go, and you are very unlikely to develop any complications.

Who gets hypothyroidism?

About 1 in 50 women, and about 1 in 1,000 men develop hypothyroidism at some time in their life. It most commonly develops in adult women, and becomes more common with increasing age. However, it can occur at any age and can affect anyone.

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