Women with underactive thyroids are being told they are menopausal or depressed

Women presenting with symptoms of underactive thyroid are having their concerns dismissed by GPs.

New research from the University of Aberdeen found that women often struggle to get a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, also known as an underactive thyroid, with their symptoms being blamed on other conditions such as depression or menopause due to their vague nature.

Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland, located in front of the trachea, does not produce enough of the hormones - triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) - which regulate the body’s metabolism. When there are not enough of these hormones being produced, many of the body's functions slow down.

According to the NHS, in most cases an underactive thyroid is caused by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland. However, there is no way of preventing hypothyroidism. It is 10 times more common in women than it is in men, and also makes up 69% of thyroid disease cases in research by the University of Aberdeen.

It can take years for women to be diagnosed with the disease. Many claim that they were told that entering menopause has caused some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism (which are vague and non-specific) such as feeling the cold, having no energy, weight gain, and heavy or irregular periods. Some patients with hypothyroidism may experience no symptoms at all, making it hard to diagnose.

woman with thyroid gland problem
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The University of Aberdeen carried out research in 2023 into the experience of patients with thyroid disease, from the onset of their symptoms through to their treatment, and found that on average it takes 4.5 years for a formal diagnosis of a thyroid condition.

They also found that it actually took longer for patients with hypothyroidism to be diagnosed, and their satisfaction with their treatment was generally lower than other types of thyroid disease. Receiving a diagnosis of hypothyroidism takes twice as long, on average, as the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Interestingly, patients with hypothyroidism showed greater satisfaction when their diagnosis was made by a female consultant.

The research states: 'Patients on average do not feel that they are being heard by the medical profession and do not feel involved or empowered during their medical journey', and this is felt greater by those suffering from hypothyroidism.

One respondent in the research said: 'It’s really not good for your head when the Doctor infers "there is nothing physically wrong with you, maybe you’re depressed".'

This is just another example of women experiencing push back when seeking medical support - particularly of conditions like endometriosis and PCOS - and explains why many women have given up on ever having a formal diagnosis, instead choosing to self-diagnose with information they find online.

Symptoms being dismissed can lead to more serious complications further down the line. One respondent to the research said: 'I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after almost 10 years of being told symptoms were nothing and that it was all in my mind.'

According to Alzheimer’s UK, people aged 65 with hypothyroidism have a 81% increased risk of developing dementia later in life when compared to people without thyroid issues.

Diagnosis requires blood tests which will look for the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and then the level of T4 in the blood. If the TSH is high and the T4 is low, a diagnosis of hypothyroidism can be made. The research calls for more informed healthcare policy debates and initiatives to encourage more efficient, and reliable, diagnoses for patients living with symptoms typical to an underactive thyroid.

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