In addition to playing an important role in the development of a growing fetus, proper thyroid hormone levels also help to minimize the chance of any thyroid complications after delivery. One particular postpartum complication is postpartum thyroiditis, a condition characterized by an inflamed thyroid gland. Postpartum thyroiditis is not a typical infection, however, the gland does become inflamed due to a response to an injury of the gland, of which the cause is unknown. Postpartum thyroiditis is a condition that results in temporary hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Postpartum thyroiditis is fairly common. In fact, 5 to 10 percent of women develop the disease after giving birth, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA).
Certain risk factors may help predict who is at an increased risk for developing postpartum thyroiditis, according to the ATA. These include:
A prior history of thyroid disorder
Having type 1 diabetes
The presence of antithyroid antibodies, i.e. those antibodies that have developed against the thyroid in response to the injury. (Researchers know that women are four times more likely than men to have thyroid antibodies in their blood, indicating thyroiditis. The levels of antibodies increase with age, often leading to hypothyroidism later in life.)
A history of postpartum thyroiditis after other pregnancies
When the thyroid becomes inflamed, it will first emit large quantities of thyroid hormone into the bloodstream (hyperthyroidism). During this phase, most women are unaware of any symptoms, which are often mild and short-lived. However, once this initial phase passes, a woman either recovers completely or has sustained damage to her thyroid. If the thyroid gland was damaged, this damage—together with a depleted reservoir of thyroid hormones—can lead to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). This condition, too, may also clear up or result in further damage and complications.
The following are the most common symptoms associated with the hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism that accompany postpartum thyroiditis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Experiencing muscle weakness
Loss of memory
Cannot tolerate cold weather
Cramps in the muscles
Loss of concentration
Postpartum thyroiditis symptoms may not appear until several months after childbirth. Symptoms are also often mistaken for normal signs of recovery from childbirth. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
Diagnostic procedures utilized to detect postpartum thyroiditis depend on the phase of the disease. If symptoms of hyperthyroidism are present, a radioactive iodine uptake test can often determine whether it is postpartum thyroiditis or Graves' disease, the most common form of hyperthyroidism. A blood test to measure levels of thyroid hormones (T4) and thyroid-stimulating hormones (TSH) can usually determine whether the mother has hypothyroidism.
Specific treatment for postpartum thyroiditis will be determined by your physician based on:
Your age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of the disease
Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
Expectations for the course of the disease
Your opinion or preference
Treatment depends on the phase of the disease and the degree of symptoms the woman is experiencing. According to the ATA, it is very important for women to have on-going thyroid monitoring since 80 percent of women with this diagnosis will have normal thyroid function within 12 to 18 months after the onset of symptoms.