The term 'subclinical hypothyroidism' applies to patients who have mildly increased levels of serum thyrotropin hormone (TSH) and normal levels of thyroxine and liothyronine (triiodiothyronine). This very common condition, also called 'mild thyroid failure', accounts for 75% of patients who have increased serum TSH. For patients with sustained increases above 10 mIU/L, there is uniform agreement that thyroxine therapy is indicated. Therapy for milder forms of hypothyroidism is controversial. Some randomized clinical trials favor therapy for mild thyroid failure, but they are inconclusive because they lack stratification for the subgroup of patients with TSH levels below 10 mIU/L. For this subgroup, we recommend individualized management. The presence of goiter, positive thyroperoxidase (TPO) antibodies, manic-depressive disorder, fertility problems, or pregnancy or the anticipation of pregnancy favors the initiation of therapy. Positive TPO antibodies are a strong indication for therapy because of the high likelihood in these patients of progression to overt hypothyroidism; patients who are already receiving thyroxine should have adjustments of their dosage. Children and adolescents with mild thyroid failure should also be treated because of possible adverse effects on growth and development. It has been suggested that subclinical hypothyroidism is a cardiovascular risk factor, however further investigation is needed. The controversy surrounding therapy will not be resolved until more randomized studies are available for the subgroup of patients with TSH <10 mIU/L, and until the question of cardiovascular risk factors is further clarified.
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