Background: Subclinical thyroid dysfunction is a risk factor for developing symptomatic thyroid disease. Advocates of screening argue that early treatment can prevent serious morbidity in individuals who are found to have laboratory evidence of subclinical thyroid dysfunction.
Purpose: This article focuses on whether it is useful to order a thyroid function test for patients who have no history of thyroid disease and have few or no signs or symptoms of thyroid dysfunction.
Data Sources: A MEDLINE search, supplemented by searches of EMBASE and the Cochrane Library, reference lists, and a local database of thyroid-related articles.
Study Selection: Controlled treatment studies that used thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels as an inclusion criterion and reported quality of life, symptoms, or lipid level outcomes were selected. Observational studies of the prevalence, progression, and consequences of subclinical thyroid dysfunction were also reviewed.
Data Extraction: The quality of each trial was assessed by using preset criteria, and information about setting, patients, interventions, and outcomes was abstracted.
Data Synthesis: The prevalence of unsuspected thyroid disease is lowest in men and highest in older women. Evidence regarding the efficacy of treatment in patients found by screening to have subclinical thyroid dysfunction is inconclusive. No trials of treatment of subclinical hyperthyroidism have been done. Several small, randomized trials of treatment of subclinical hypothyroidism have been done, but the results are inconclusive except in patients who have a history of treatment of Graves disease, a subgroup that is not a target of screening in the general population. Data on the adverse effects of broader use of l-thyroxine are sparse.
Conclusion: It is uncertain whether treatment will improve quality of life in otherwise healthy patients who have abnormal TSH levels and normal free thyroxine levels.