What is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism is a common medical condition that causes a decrease in thyroid production. The thyroid is positioned around the trachea in the front, lower portion of the neck. This small gland controls a person’s metabolism rate and it has an impact on various other functions including heart rate, body temperature and energy levels. Hypothyroidism is often caused by an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Additional causes of an underactive thyroid include thyroid surgery, radiation treatments for cancer and certain medications. Treatment for hyperthyroidism, which causes the gland to produce too much thyroid hormone, can ultimately cause individuals to have hypothyroidism.

What are the Symptoms of Hypothyroidism?

Signs that are an indicator of hypothyroidism include gaining weight, puffiness in the face, swollen legs, achy muscles, stiff joints, fatigue and constipation. An underactive thyroid can also cause individuals to have high cholesterol and a heart rate that is slower than normal. It is not uncommon for those who have hypothyroidism to become depressed and have memory problems.

Additional symptoms associated with this condition include dry skin, a hoarse voice and sensitivity to cold.

Hypothyroidism Causes

Hypothyroidism is a complex condition that may have a variety of different causes. Sometimes, hypothyroidism is the result of another condition. For example, if a person has sarcoidosis or hemochromatosis, the thyroid may become under active, resulting in symptoms occurring.

The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In this disorder, the body’s immune system improperly determines that its own thyroid gland is a foreign object. The immune system then produces antibodies to destroy the thyroid gland. Over time, the thyroid is damaged, and it produces smaller amounts of necessary thyroid hormones.

There are viruses that can attack the thyroid. This condition is known as thyroiditis. This type of thyroiditis often rectifies itself over the course of a few weeks when the virus is cleared from the body.

Radiation may damage the thyroid, leading to hypothyroidism. This radiation is usually received when people are being treated for another thyroid condition called Graves’ disease. Radiation may also damage the thyroid and lead to hypothyroidism when people are undergoing cancer radiation treatments.

Another leading cause of hypothyroidism is a lack of iodine in the diet. This mineral is essential for proper thyroid function. Most salt is iodized and contains this essential mineral.

There are some medications that may lead to hypothyroidism. Lithium and drugs that suppress the immune system are the most common offenders.

How is Hypothyroidism Treated?

Hypothyroidism is generally treated with a synthetic hormone that is taken in pill form. Individuals who take this drug report lower cholesterol levels, noticeable weight loss and increased energy. This medication is prescribed for daily use and since various other medications can interact with this prescription, individuals must advise their physician of any other types of drugs or supplements they are currently taking.

After a few months of taking hypothyroidism medication, individuals will have to visit their physician for a routine blood test. After examining the test results, the physician may need to adjust the dosage of the medication. Those who take medication for hypothyroidism usually have to continue taking the medication for the rest of their life.

Hypothyroidism Prevention

There is no way to prevent the hypothyroidism that is a result of autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Doctors are unsure as to why most autoimmune disorders occur.

If hypothyroidism is caused by medication, discontinuing the medication will provide relief. Patients need to make sure that they do not take these medicines in the future if an alternative is available.

It is essential to receive iodine in the diet for the thyroid to function properly. Salt is a good way to obtain this mineral, but cranberries, navy beans, strawberries and potatoes also contain iodine.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
January 12, 2018