High and Low TSH Levels: What They Mean
Interpretations, Variations, and Controversies
By Mary Shomon | Medically reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD | Updated June 25, 2019
It's important to understand the meaning and possible causes of both high thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and low TSH, whether you have been living with thyroid disease for a long time or are only having the test to screen for a thyroid disorder. A high TSH level can mean a new diagnosis of hypothyroidism or inadequate thyroid replacement. A low TSH might mean hyperthyroidism or overtreatment of hypothyroidism. That said, there are exceptions to these interpretations, as well as what a "normal" level may be for you.
TSH levels are confusing and not necessarily intuitive. For example, many people question why high TSH levels can mean the thyroid is underactive and low TSH levels can mean it's overactive. Understanding exactly how the thyroid gland works can help.
Your thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone. When it functions properly, your thyroid is part of a feedback loop with your pituitary gland that involves several key steps:
Once you understand these thyroid basics, it's easier to understand what a low TSH and a high TSH reveal about your thyroid's function.
The normal range for TSH is between 0.5 mU/l and 5.0 mU/l.1
As with most medical conditions and tests, however, there are exceptions to this rule. It's also important to note that normal thyroid levels may be abnormal for you. For example, a TSH greater than 3.0 mU/l is abnormal in pregnancy.
A high TSH means different things depending on whether a person has known thyroid disease or not.
A high TSH in people who are not undergoing thyroid disease treatment usually indicates the presence of peripheral hypothyroidism. This is by far the most common form of hypothyroidism and occurs because the thyroid gland produces an inadequate amount of thyroid hormones.3 The pituitary gland will sense these low levels and increase production of TSH.
An elevated TSH may also occur with normal thyroid function due to the presence of antibodies and more.
A high TSH may be found in people being treated for either hypo- or hyperthyroidism. With hypothyroidism, a high TSH usually means that the dose of thyroid hormone needs to be increased. In some cases, however, the dose is optimal, but the medication is not fully absorbed. (Many foods and medications can affect levothyroxine, and it's important to learn how to properly take thyroid hormones.)4
With hyperthyroidism, a high TSH usually means that the treatment (whether surgery, radioactive iodine, or medications) was effective in turning off the overproduction of thyroid hormone, and that a person has now become hypothyroid.
A low TSH often, but not always, means that a person has an elevated level of thyroid hormones.
While often associated with hyperthyroidism, a low TSH could also be a sign of central hypothyroidism.
In people being treated for hypothyroidism, a low TSH level may mean:
In people being treated for hyperthyroidism, a low TSH level usually means that further treatment is needed to reduce thyroid hormone levels or that a person must continue to be monitored to make sure thyroid hormone levels return to normal (such as in cases of transient thyroiditis related to pregnancy or chemotherapy treatment).6
There are a number of variations and factors that can affect TSH levels. It's important to be aware of these, as treatment that is dictated solely by lab values (as opposed to also considering an individual's symptoms) can result in an ineffective plan.
If a TSH level is surprising, sometimes simply repeating the test is the best course. Errors can occur during the blood draw, in transcribing the results, or due to mix-ups in the lab. Statistically, there is always a risk of lab error, and results should always be interpreted along with clinical symptoms and findings.
Antibodies are thought to interfere with accurate thyroid testing in roughly 1 percent of people.7 In a 2018 review, it was estimated that in people who have these antibodies, the interference with TSH testing caused either misdiagnosis or inappropriate treatment in more than 50 percent of cases:
A number of other factors can affect TSH test results either through having an effect on actual levels of thyroid hormones or interacting with testing measures. Some of these include:
In order to get the most accurate results, it's important to be consistent. For example, always having your test done at the same time of day.
A somewhat controversial test available some places uses fingerprick rather than venous blood draw samples to evaluate thyroid function.9 Proponents of this testing, also called a blood spot test, believe that this testing prevents the breakdown of TSH during the time between when blood is drawn and when it is that could lead to erroneous results. Since the test is not currently widely available, it's unknown exactly how well the test compares with conventional TSH testing.
During diagnosis, most doctors use the TSH test to evaluate thyroid function and determine the optimal course of treatment. There are times, however, when a TSH is or may be insufficient.
For instance, free T4 in addition to TSH is usually tested if a doctor suspects thyroid dysfunction arising from disease of the pituitary gland or hypothalamus.1 Likewise, if the TSH is normal, but a person still has symptoms of being hyperthyroid or hypothyroid, free T4 may be checked.
TSH is also not necessarily sufficient to monitor hypothyroidism during pregnancy, and a T4 and free T4 are often recommended. Depending on the clinical situation, other thyroid tests that may be evaluated include triiodothyronine (T3), free T3, reverse T3, and thyroid antibody tests.
Nutritional treatment and Thyroid evaluation offered by Steven B. Wasserman, a local Chiropractor in Los Alamitos, Dr. Wasserman can provide a consultation to identify the source or cause of your problem and a treatment plan to relieve it. Call us at 562-430-4949 for an appointment.
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