January 12, 2020
Maintaining thyroid health is an important part of postpartum wellness. But for new moms who have postpartum thyroiditis, this can be challenging. Postpartum thyroiditis is rare but can lead to serious health issues if left untreated.
The Thyroid Gland Function
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped endocrine gland located in the lower part of the neck. The gland’s job is to produce thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body. These hormones help our bodies regulate energy, stay warm and ensure our vital organs are working how they’re supposed to.1
What is Thyroiditis?
Thyroiditis occurs when the thyroid gland becomes inflamed. When this happens shortly after a woman gives birth, it is referred to as postpartum thyroiditis. Thyroiditis can cause thyrotoxicosis, which is when the levels of thyroid hormones in the blood are too high.1 By contrast, thyroiditis can also cause hypothyroidism, which is when the levels in the blood are too low. In postpartum thyroiditis, thyrotoxicosis is typically followed by hypothyroidism.1 This drastic change in thyroid levels from high to low can cause unpleasant symptoms and lead to serious complications if not treated.
Symptoms of Postpartum Thyroiditis
Since postpartum thyroiditis involves two distinct phases of the illness, it is associated with two distinct groups of symptoms. During thyrotoxicosis, women may experience symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, rapid heartbeat, unexplained weight loss, increased sensitivity to heat, fatigue, tremors and insomnia.2 These symptoms are typically associated with an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). They typically appear one to four months after a woman delivers her baby and can last between one and three months.2
Later, after the thyroid cells have become impaired, signs of an under-active thyroid start to appear. This second phase is characterized by symptoms such as lack of energy, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin, weight gain and depression.2 These symptoms usually begin four to six weeks after the symptoms of hyperthyroidism/thyrotoxicosis resolve and may last six to 12 months.2 It should be noted that some women with postpartum thyroiditis only exhibit symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.2
Causes of Postpartum Thyroiditis
The exact cause of postpartum thyroiditis is unknown. However, it is considered to be an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system attacks the cells it is designed to protect.3 Postpartum thyroiditis is thought to be very similar to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is associated with the presence of antithyroid antibodies.1 Women with positive antithyroid antibodies are thought to be at a higher risk of developing postpartum thyroiditis than women who do not have positive antibodies.1
How Common is Postpartum Thyroiditis?
In the United States, postpartum thyroiditis occurs in about 5 percent to 10 percent of women. However, the American Thyroid Association says that some women may be more prone to the condition than others.1
Women who may be at a higher risk of developing this disease include those who have preexisting autoimmune disorders; a history of previous thyroid dysfunction; positive antithyroid antibodies ; a history of previous postpartum thyroiditis (20 percent of women who had the disease will have a recurrence with future pregnancies); or a family history of thyroid dysfunction.1
Treatment of postpartum thyroiditis depends on the phase and severity of the disease. Women with thyrotoxicosis may be treated with beta blockers to ease symptoms. As symptoms decrease, the medication may be reduced or stopped. Antithyroid medications are not used since the thyroid is not actually overactive.1
During the hypothyroid phase, women may be treated with thyroid hormone replacement. However, if the symptoms are mild, treatment may not be needed.
Consulting Your Doctor
If you are experiencing symptoms like those listed above, be sure to tell your health care professional. He or she can assess your condition and recommend a treatment plan that works for your health needs and those of your baby.
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