In general, your doctor may test for an underactive thyroid if you are feeling increasingly tired, have dry skin, constipation and weight gain, or have had previous thyroid problems or a goiter.
Diagnosis of hypothyroidism is based on your symptoms and the results of blood tests that measure the level of TSH and sometimes the level of the thyroid hormone thyroxine. A low level of thyroxine and high level of TSH indicate an underactive thyroid. That's because your pituitary produces more TSH in an effort to stimulate your thyroid gland into producing more thyroid hormone.
Doctors can diagnose thyroid disorders much earlier than in the past — often before you experience symptoms. Because the TSH test is the best screening test, your doctor will likely check TSH first and follow with a thyroid hormone test if needed.
TSH tests also play an important role in managing hypothyroidism. They help your doctor determine the right dosage of medication, both initially 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.
There are certain factors that can affect blood tests for thyroid problems. One is the blood-thinning medication called heparin. Another is biotin, a vitamin taken as a stand-alone supplement or as part of a multivitamin. Let your doctor know about any medications or supplements you take before having blood tests done.
Standard treatment for hypothyroidism involves daily use of the synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine (Levo-T, Synthroid, others). This oral medication restores adequate hormone levels, reversing the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism.
You'll likely start to feel better soon after you start treatment. The medication gradually lowers cholesterol levels elevated by the disease and may reverse any weight gain. Treatment with levothyroxine will likely be lifelong, but because the dosage you need may change, your doctor is likely to check your TSH level every year.
Determining proper dosage may take time
To determine the right dosage of levothyroxine initially, your doctor generally checks your level of TSH after six to eight weeks. After that, blood levels are generally checked six months later. Excessive amounts of the hormone can cause side effects, such as:
- Increased appetite
- Heart palpitations
If you have coronary artery disease or severe hypothyroidism, your doctor may start treatment with a smaller amount of medication and gradually increase the dosage. Progressive hormone replacement allows your heart to adjust to the increase in metabolism.
Levothyroxine causes virtually no side effects when used in the appropriate dose and is relatively inexpensive. If you change brands, let your doctor know to ensure you're still receiving the right dosage.
Also, don't skip doses or stop taking the drug because you're feeling better. If you do, the symptoms of hypothyroidism will gradually return.
Proper absorption of levothyroxine
Certain medications, supplements and even some foods may affect your ability to absorb levothyroxine. Talk to your doctor if you eat large amounts of soy products or a high-fiber diet or you take other medications, such as:
- Iron supplements or multivitamins that contain iron
- Aluminum hydroxide, which is found in some antacids
- Calcium supplements
Levothyroxine is best taken on an empty stomach at the same time every day. Ideally, you'll take the hormone in the morning and wait an hour before eating or taking other medications. If you take it at bedtime, wait four hours after your last meal or snack.
If you miss a dose of levothyroxine, take two pills the next day.
If you have subclinical hypothyroidism, discuss treatment with your doctor. For a relatively mild increase in TSH, you probably won't benefit from thyroid hormone therapy, and treatment could even be harmful. On the other hand, for a higher TSH level, thyroid hormones may improve your cholesterol level, the pumping ability of your heart and your energy level.
Although most doctors recommend synthetic thyroxine, natural extracts containing thyroid hormone derived from the thyroid glands of pigs are available. These products contain both thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Synthetic thyroid medications contain thyroxine only, and the triiodothyronine your body needs is derived from the thyroxine.
Extracts are available by prescription only and shouldn't be confused with the glandular concentrates sold in natural foods stores. These products aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and their potency and purity isn't guaranteed.
Preparing for your appointment
You'll likely start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. In some cases, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the body's hormone-secreting glands (endocrinologist). Infants with hypothyroidism need immediate referral to a pediatrics endocrinologist for treatment. Children or teens need to see a pediatric endocrinologist if there is any uncertainly about starting levothyroxine or proper dosing of the hormone.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
- Take a family member or friend along, if possible. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For hypothyroidism, some basic questions to ask include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What tests do I need?
- Is my condition likely temporary or long lasting?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other relevant questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- Do you have a family history of thyroid disease?