Narrow individual variations in serum T(4) and T(3) in normal subjects: a clue to the understanding of subclinical thyroid disease

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Mar;87(3):1068-72. doi: 10.1210/jcem.87.3.8165.


High individuality causes laboratory reference ranges to be insensitive to changes in test results that are significant for the individual. We undertook a longitudinal study of variation in thyroid function tests in 16 healthy men with monthly sampling for 12 months using standard procedures. We measured serum T(4), T(3), free T(4) index, and TSH. All individuals had different variations of thyroid function tests (P < 0.001 for all variables) around individual mean values (set points) (P < 0.001 for all variables). The width of the individual 95% confidence intervals were approximately half that of the group for all variables. Accordingly, the index of individuality was low: T(4) = 0.58; T(3) = 0.54; free T(4) index = 0.59; TSH = 0.49. One test result described the individual set point with a precision of +/- 25% for T(4), T(3), free T(4) index, and +/- 50% for TSH. The differences required to be 95% confident of significant changes in repeated testing were (average, range): T(4) = 28, 11-62 nmol/liter; T(3) = 0.55, 0.3--0.9 nmol/liter; free T4 index = 33, 15-61 nmol/liter; TSH = 0.75, 0.2-1.6 mU/liter. Our data indicate that each individual had a unique thyroid function. The individual reference ranges for test results were narrow, compared with group reference ranges used to develop laboratory reference ranges. Accordingly, a test result within laboratory reference limits is not necessarily normal for an individual. Because serum TSH responds with logarithmically amplified variation to minor changes in serum T(4) and T(3), abnormal serum TSH may indicate that serum T(4) and T(3) are not normal for an individual. A condition with abnormal serum TSH but with serum T(4) and T(3) within laboratory reference ranges is labeled subclinical thyroid disease. Our data indicate that the distinction between subclinical and overt thyroid disease (abnormal serum TSH and abnormal T(4) and/or T(3)) is somewhat arbitrary. For the same degree of thyroid function abnormality, the diagnosis depends to a considerable extent on the position of the patient's normal set point for T(4) and T(3) within the laboratory reference range.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reference Values
  • Thyroid Diseases / blood
  • Thyroid Function Tests
  • Thyrotropin / blood
  • Thyroxine / blood*
  • Triiodothyronine / blood*


  • Triiodothyronine
  • Thyrotropin
  • Thyroxine