Home About us Editorial board Ahead of print Current issue Search Archives Submit article Instructions Subscribe Contacts Login 

 Table of Contents  
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 39-41

Subclinical hypothyroidism

Department of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India

Date of Web Publication20-Jun-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. K Felix Jebasingh
Department of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Christian Medical College, Vellore - 632 004, Tamil Nadu
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cmi.cmi_18_18

Rights and Permissions

Subclinical hypothyroidism (SCH) is defined as an elevated serum thyroid-stimulating hormone level with a normal total and free thyroxine (T4) level. There is a certain degree of debate regarding the risks associated with this condition and whether treatment is beneficial. Individuals with SCH are either asymptomatic or present with milder symptoms than those with overt hypothyroidism. Although SCH does not cause significant clinical abnormalities, there are certain long-term consequences which have been documented. The diagnosis is based purely on biochemical investigations. Treatment of this condition is not indicated in all cases since thyroid function tests tend to normalize in 6%–35% of patients. However, there are specific clinical indications for treatment and oral levothyroxine is the treatment of choice in such situations.

Keywords: Serum thyroid-stimulating hormone, subclinical hypothyroidism, T4 level

How to cite this article:
Jebasingh K F, Naik D, Thomas N. Subclinical hypothyroidism. Curr Med Issues 2018;16:39-41

How to cite this URL:
Jebasingh K F, Naik D, Thomas N. Subclinical hypothyroidism. Curr Med Issues [serial online] 2018 [cited 2023 Feb 2];16:39-41. Available from: https://www.cmijournal.org/text.asp?2018/16/2/39/234830

  Case Scenario Top

A 29-year-old female, married for 5 years, was referred for the evaluation of primary infertility. She had normal menstrual cycles. She had progressive weight gain and tiredness but with no classical symptoms of hypothyroidism. The BMI of the patient was 28 kg/m2. On examination, she had acanthosis nigricans; her blood pressure was 130/80 mmHg and ankle jerks were normally elicited. A diffusely palpable goiter with rubbery consistency was palpable. Biochemical evaluation revealed normal parameters except for a high serum thyroid-stimulating hormone level of 9 µIU/ml (reference interval – 0.3–4.5) and a low total thyroxine (T4) level of 7.5 µg/dl (reference interval – 4.5–12.5) with normal free thyroxine levels too. Antithyroglobulin and antithyroid peroxidase antibody titers were >100 units confirming the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. What is the next line of management?

  Introduction Top

Subclinical hypothyroidism (SCH) is defined as an elevated serum thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) level with a normal total and free thyroxine (FT4) level. The prevalence of SCH in large epidemiologic studies, namely, Framingham, Rotterdam, and Colorado studies are 8.9, 10.3, and 9.5%, respectively.[1],[2],[3] SCH is more prevalent in relatively iodine-rich areas; 6.1% to 18.0% compared to 0.9% to 3.8% in iodine-deficient areas.[4] The risk of progression of SCH to overt hypothyroidism is estimated to be approximately 2%–6% per year; the risk factors for the same are female gender, persons with higher TSH levels, those with higher levels of thyroid antibodies, and those with low-normal FT4 levels.[5]

  Set Point of Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone Top

Serum TSH and FT4 show substantial variability among healthy individuals, whereas the range of variability within the healthy person tends to be relatively narrow. This finding suggests a unique set point of the hypothalamic–pituitary–thyroid axis for each person and explains why a TSH of 10 mIU/l is associated with a normal FT4 level in some individuals and a decreased FT4 level in others.

Elderly individuals, women, and those with antithyroid antibodies have a stronger log-linear relationship between TSH and FT4 levels than the young men, and those with lower levels of antithyroid antibodies.[6]

  Symptoms Top

Many patients with SCH are asymptomatic. However, there is evidence to suggest that a certain subgroup of patients tend to report symptoms of overt hypothyroidism more often than age-matched controls. These symptoms are usually milder than those in patients with overt hypothyroidism and tend to increase in both number and severity with higher TSH levels.

  Long-Term Clinical Consequences Top

Although SCH does not cause significant clinical abnormalities, there are certain long-term consequences which have been documented in prospective studies of those patients.

SCH is found to be associated with an increased total cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and with subclinical measures of cardiovascular disease.[7] However, there is no clear evidence for these associations.

Higher TSH levels are associated with increased body-mass index and increased waist circumference. Elevated levels of leptin, found in obese patients, are another potential cause for high TSH in patients with obesity. Leptin is shown to stimulate centrally the transcription of pro-thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) and consequently TSH. In addition, leptin also enhances the activity of deiodinases. Moreover, adipose tissue secretes inflammatory cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin (IL)-1, and IL-6, which inhibit sodium/iodide symporter mRNA expression and iodide uptake in the follicular cells of the thyroid gland.[8] The elevated TSH level of obese patients was found to normalize following weight loss with either bariatric surgery or by instituting a hypocaloric diet.[9]

The risks of female infertility, spontaneous abortion, and other complications associated with pregnancy, such as gestational hypertension and preeclampsia, are found to be increased in women with SCH and associated with positive antithyroid antibodies. During pregnancy, various changes may occur in thyroid homeostasis, including an increased demand for thyroid hormone, which is mediated by high levels of human chorionic gonadotropin. Hence, TSH may increase in patients with preexisting mild thyroid dysfunction.[10]

  Diagnosis Top

SCH is purely a biochemical diagnosis that is defined as an elevated serum TSH level and a normal FT4 level. Since multiple factors, such as subacute thyroiditis, recovery from nonthyroidal illness, and medications (e.g., amiodarone and lithium), can cause transient abnormalities in the serum TSH level, a transient increase in the TSH level should be ruled out before a diagnosis of SCH is made. All these patients should have a repeat measurement of TSH and FT4 after a 2-to-3-month interval, along with antithyroid antibodies. The presence of antithyroid antibodies supports the diagnosis of an autoimmune cause of SCH, and these patients have an increased chance of progression to overt hypothyroidism that may be twice compared to those with a negative test for antithyroid antibodies (cumulative incidence at 9 years, 59% vs. 23%).[11] However, a repeat measurement of serum of antithyroid antibodies is not recommended in the management of SCH.[12] Although ultrasonography of the thyroid gland provides an increased vascularity to suggest thyroid autoimmunity, ultrasonography is not routinely recommended.

  Indications for Treatment Top

In patients who are incidentally detected to have SCH, the thyroid functions may normalize in 6%–35% of patients. If thin-film transistor (TFT) normalize, then there is no need to do further tests, especially if the patients are asymptomatic or have no goiter and anti-TPO antibodies are not positive. But if SCH is persistent, then TFT should be tested every 6 months for the first 2 years and then annually thereafter.[13]

However, there are specific clinical situations where it better to initiate treatment. The indications for treatment are listed in [Table 1].
Table 1: Indications for treatment of subclinical hypothyroidism

Click here to view

  Treatment of Subclinical Hypothyroidism Top

Oral levothyroxine is the treatment of choice in SCH if there is a clinical indication. The current evidence does not suggest the use of either liothyronine (T3) or combined levothyroxine/liothyronine treatment for SCH. The ETA guidelines recommend a weight-adjusted starting dose of 1.5 μg/kg for patients without cardiac disease and at a lower dose with gradual increase in the dose every week for patients having heart problems and in the elderly.[14] The serum TSH should be rechecked 2–3 months after the initiation of levothyroxine, with the aim of maintaining the TSH in the lower half of recommended range (0.4–2.5 mIU/l and a higher range (1.0–5.0 mIU/l) for elderly patients (>70 years).

There is a risk of overtreatment of this condition in up to 14%–21% of patients. This may present with symptoms of nervousness, palpitations, worsening of ischemic heart disease and heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and decreased bone mineral density with an increased fracture risk.

Coming to the patient discussed in the case scenario, in view of the pregnancy plan and positive antithyroid antibody, she was started on oral thyroxine 50 mcg/day and was advised to keep the level of TSH within normal limits before pregnancy.

  Conclusion Top

SCH is a topic of debate with regard to the risks that may be associated with this condition and whether treatment may be beneficial in these patients. The balance of risk and benefit is influenced by the degree of TSH elevation, associated risk factors, and comorbid conditions.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Hak AE, Pols HA, Visser TJ, Drexhage HA, Hofman A, Witteman JC, et al. Subclinical hypothyroidism is an independent risk factor for atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction in elderly women: The Rotterdam study. Ann Intern Med 2000;132:270-8.  Back to cited text no. 1
Sawin CT, Castelli WP, Hershman JM, McNamara P, Bacharach P. The aging thyroid. Thyroid deficiency in the Framingham study. Arch Intern Med 1985;145:1386-8.  Back to cited text no. 2
Canaris GJ, Manowitz NR, Mayor G, Ridgway EC. The Colorado thyroid disease prevalence study. Arch Intern Med 2000;160:526-34.  Back to cited text no. 3
Kim YA, Park YJ. Prevalence and risk factors of subclinical thyroid disease. Endocrinol Metab (Seoul) 2014;29:20-9.  Back to cited text no. 4
The Spectrum of Thyroid Disease in a Community: The Whickham Survey. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/598014. [Last accessed on 2018 Apr 16].  Back to cited text no. 5
Chaker L, Korevaar TI, Medici M, Uitterlinden AG, Hofman A, Dehghan A, et al. Thyroid function characteristics and determinants: The Rotterdam study. Thyroid 2016;26:1195-204.  Back to cited text no. 6
Clinical Significance of Subclinical Thyroid Dysfunction | Endocrine Reviews | Oxford Academic. Available from: https://www.academic.oup.com/edrv/article/29/1/76/2354999. [Last accessed on 2018 Apr 17].  Back to cited text no. 7
Sanyal D, Raychaudhuri M. Hypothyroidism and obesity: An intriguing link. Indian J Endocrinol Metab 2016;20:554-7.  Back to cited text no. 8
Reinehr T, de Sousa G, Andler W. Hyperthyrotropinemia in obese children is reversible after weight loss and is not related to lipids. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2006;91:3088-91.  Back to cited text no. 9
Chan S, Boelaert K. Optimal management of hypothyroidism, hypothyroxinaemia and euthyroid TPO antibody positivity preconception and in pregnancy. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf) 2015;82:313-26.  Back to cited text no. 10
Huber G, Staub JJ, Meier C, Mitrache C, Guglielmetti M, Huber P, et al. Prospective study of the spontaneous course of subclinical hypothyroidism: Prognostic value of thyrotropin, thyroid reserve, and thyroid antibodies. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2002;87:3221-6.  Back to cited text no. 11
Variation in Thyroid Function in Subclinical Hypothyroidism: Importance of Clinical Follow-up and Therapy. Available from: http://www.eje-online.org/content/164/3/317. [Last accessed on 2018 Apr 18].  Back to cited text no. 12
Surks MI, Ortiz E, Daniels GH, Sawin CT, Col NF, Cobin RH, et al. Subclinical thyroid disease: Scientific review and guidelines for diagnosis and management. JAMA 2004;291:228-38.  Back to cited text no. 13
Pearce SH, Brabant G, Duntas LH, Monzani F, Peeters RP, Razvi S, et al. 2013 ETA guideline: Management of subclinical hypothyroidism. Eur Thyroid J 2013;2:215-28.  Back to cited text no. 14


  [Table 1]

This article has been cited by
1 Impact of Laparoscopic Sleeve Gastrectomy on Obese Patients with Subclinical Hypothyroidism
Tamer N. Abdelbaki,Mostafa R. Elkeleny,Mohamed Abdallah Sharaan,Ahmed Talha,Maha Bondok
Journal of Laparoendoscopic & Advanced Surgical Techniques. 2019;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article
Set Point of Thy...
Long-Term Clinic...
Indications for ...
Treatment of Sub...
Case Scenario
Article Tables

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded191    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 1    

Recommend this journal