Many of the medical professionals in the "Easy to Diagnose, Easy to Treat" camp cling to old dogma like a life raft, believing such ideas as:
- All you need is a Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) test to diagnose and manage thyroid problems
- A TSH that falls in the laboratory normal range (usually around .50 to 4.50) means the thyroid is normal.
- There is no need to run thyroid antibodies tests if TSH is normal.
- There is never a need to run Free Thyroxine (Free T4) or Free Triiodothyronine (Free T3) tests, and their results are almost always meaningless to diagnosis and management of thyroid disease.
- There is never a need to run a Reverse T3 test, as the results have no bearing on symptoms or treatment.
- Levothyroxine (synthetic T4) is the only treatment ever needed for hypothyroidism.
- Radioactive iodine (RAI) ablation is the recommended treatment for most cases of Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism.
- There is no treatment for Hashimoto's disease.
- Indeterminate or inconclusive results on fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsies of thyroid nodules mean a patient should have the entire thyroid surgically removed.
- Diet, lifestyle, and nutritional status have no impact on the development of or resolution of thyroid disease and its symptoms.
Then there are the integrative and holistic practitioners -- and the occasional forward-thinking endocrinologists -- who are working with thyroid patients. Let's call them the "One Size Doesn't Fit All" camp. These practitioners are the ones who approach thyroid diagnosis and treatment with a more open mind. Most of these practitioners have a very different dogma, so to speak, with most believing that:
- The Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) test is just one of many tests that can be used to diagnose and manage thyroid problems -- along with careful medical history, and evaluation of symptoms.
- The TSH normal range is too broad, and the narrower range, at minimum, should be used as a starting point. That said, the TSH test can be flawed, and can miss thyroid problems that warrant treatment, such as subclinical hypothyroidism, and Hashimoto's disease.
- Establishing whether a thyroid problem is due to autoimmunity -- i.e., Hashimoto's disease or Graves' disease -- is always important information that warrants this testing.
- A complete thyroid panel should include Free T4 and Free T3, both to diagnose thyroid abnormalities, and to manage treatment. There are "optimal" levels for Free T4 and Free T3, and these should be used as guidance, rather than the broader "normal range."
- Reverse T3 is a valuable test that can help identify thyroid transport and cellular issues that have a role in diagnosis and treatment.
- Levothyroxine (synthetic T4) is just one treatment for hypothyroidism. Studies have shown that some patients do better, safely, with the addition of synthetic T3 for combination T4/T3 therapy. And years of practice have shown that some patients do better, safely, with natural desiccated thyroid drugs. The best thyroid hormone replacement drug is the one that safely works best for each patient.
- Radioactive iodine (RAI) ablation and surgery are treatments for Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism, however, before any permanent, irreversible actions are taken, most patients should be offered the opportunity to take antithyroid drugs, and potentially achieve a disease remission. Patients should also be carefully evaluated to ensure that the hyperthyroidism is not a transient phase of Hashimoto's disease.
- Hashimoto's disease, even when TSH, Free T4 and Free T3 levels are within normal, is a disease process that can sometimes be halted or put into remission with thyroid hormone replacement medication. Thyroid hormone replacement medication can also help prevent progression to overt hypothyroidism in some patients, and therefore, Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPOAb) should be tested, and the potential value of treatment carefully considered in patients who test positive and have thyroid symptoms.
- Indeterminate or inconclusive fine needle aspiration biopsies of thyroid nodules should undergo additional specialized analyses that can determine if a nodule is cancerous, and help patients avoid unnecessary surgery.
- Diet, lifestyle, and nutritional status have an impact on the development of or resolution of thyroid disease and its symptoms, and identifying dietary, lifestyle and environmental toxins, chronic infections, nutritional deficiencies, and other hormonal imbalances are all important parts of thyroid treatment.
As a patient advocate, I think it's time for the two camps to come together. And to make that happen, the first step is for the various players in the world of endocrinology to take a long, hard look at their motivations, their biases, and their shortsighted dedication to outdated diagnostic and treatment practices that are not meeting the needs of today's thyroid patients.