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Hypothyroidism (underactivity of the thyroid gland) occurs when the thyroid gland produces less than the normal amount of thyroid hormones. The result is the “slowing down” of many bodily functions. Although hypothyroidism may be temporary, it usually is a permanent condition. Some studies have shown that as many as 10% of women and 3% of men have hypothyroidism.

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

In its earliest stage, hypothyroidism may cause few symptoms, since the body has the ability to partially compensate for a failing thyroid gland by increasing the stimulation to it, much like pressing down on the accelerator when climbing a hill to keep the car going the same speed. However, as thyroid hormone production decreases and the body’s metabolism slows, a variety of symptoms may result.

  • Pervasive fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty with learning
  • Dry, brittle hair and nails
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Puffy face
  • Constipation
  • Sore muscles
  • Weight gain and fluid retention
  • Heavy and/or irregular menstrual flow
  • Increased frequency of miscarriages
  • Increased sensitivity to many medications

What are the causes of hypothyroidism?

  • Autoimmune thyroiditis - (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) The body’s immune system may produce a reaction in the thyroid gland that results in hypothyroidism and, most often, a goiter (enlargement of the thyroid). Other autoimmune diseases may be associated with this disorder, and additional family members may also be affected.
  • Radioactive iodine treatment - Hypothyroidism frequently develops as a desired therapeutic goal after the use of radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism.
  • Spontaneous onset - Underproduction of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) can occur for no apparent reason.
  • Thyroid operation - Hypothyroidism may be related to surgery on the thyroid gland, especially if most of the thyroid has been removed.
  • Medications - Lithium, high doses of iodine, and amiodarone (Cordarone, Pacerone) can cause hypothyroidism.
  • Subacute thyroiditis - Painful inflammation of the thyroid, the cause of which is unknown, may cause hypothyroidism after a period of over activity (hyperthyroidism). Although the hypothyroidism is usually temporary, in a small percentage of cases, it may become permanent.
  • Postpartum thyroiditis - Shortly after pregnancy, the thyroid may go through a period of hyperthyroidism, followed by hypothyroidism, and then most often returns to normal function.
  • Congenital condition - An infant may be born with an inadequate amount of thyroid tissue or an enzyme defect that does not allow normal thyroid hormone production. If this condition is not treated promptly, physical stunting and/or mental damage (cretinism) may develop.
  • Pituitary hypothyroidism  - Any destructive disease of the pituitary gland may cause damage to the cells that secrete Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which stimulates the thyroid to produce normal amounts of thyroid hormone. This is a very rare cause of hypothyroidism.