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The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced by the pituitary gland, a tiny organ located below the brain and behind the sinus cavities. TSH stimulates the thyroid gland to release the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) into the blood. These thyroid hormones help control the rate at which the body uses energy. This test measures the amount of TSH in the blood.
TSH, along with its regulatory hormone thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH), which comes from the hypothalamus, is part of the feedback system that the body uses to maintain stable amounts of thyroid hormones in the blood. When thyroid hormone concentrations decrease, the production of TSH by the pituitary gland is increased. TSH in turn stimulates the production and release of T4 and T3 by the thyroid gland, a small butterfly-shaped gland that lies at the base of the throat flat against the windpipe. When all three organs are functioning normally, thyroid production turns on and off to maintain relatively stable levels of thyroid hormones in the blood.
If the thyroid releases inappropriately large amounts of T4 and T3, the affected person may experience symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism, such as rapid heart rate, weight loss, nervousness, hand tremors, irritated eyes, and difficulty sleeping. Graves disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. It is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which the affected person's immune system produces antibodies that act like TSH, leading to the production of excessive amounts of thyroid hormone. In response, the pituitary may produce less TSH, usually leading to a low level in the blood.
If there is decreased production of thyroid hormones by the thyroid (hypothyroidism), the person may experience symptoms such as weight gain, dry skin, constipation, cold intolerance, and fatigue. Hashimoto thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S. It is a chronic autoimmune condition in which the immune response causes inflammation and damage to the thyroid as well as the production of autoantibodies. With Hashimoto thyroiditis, the thyroid produces low levels of thyroid hormone. The pituitary may produce more TSH, usually resulting in a high level in the blood.
However, the level of TSH does not always predict or reflect thyroid hormone levels. Some people produce an abnormal form of TSH that does not function properly. They often have hypothyroidism despite having normal or even mildly elevated TSH levels. In a variety of thyroid diseases, thyroid hormone levels may be high or low, regardless of the amount of TSH present in the blood.
Rarely, pituitary dysfunction may result in increased or decreased amounts of TSH. In addition to pituitary dysfunction, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism can occur if there is a problem with the hypothalamus (insufficient or excessive TRH).
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is obtained from a needle placed in a vein in the arm or from pricking the heel of an infant.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed. Certain medications can interfere with the TSH test, so tell your health practitioner about any drugs that you are taking. If you take thyroid hormone as treatment for thyroid disease, it is recommended that your blood sample be drawn before you take your dose for that day.