Importance: Rates of thyroid hormone prescribing in the United States and the United Kingdom have increased substantially. If some of the increase is due to lowering the thyrotropin threshold for treatment, this may result in less benefit and greater harm.
Objective: To define trends in thyrotropin levels at the initiation of levothyroxine sodium therapy and the risk of developing a suppressed thyrotropin level following treatment. DESIGN, SETTING, PARTICIPANTS, AND EXPOSURE: Retrospective cohort study using data from the United Kingdom Clinical Practice Research Datalink. Among 52,298 individuals who received a prescription for levothyroxine between January 1, 2001, and October 30, 2009, we extracted data about the thyrotropin level before levothyroxine therapy initiation, clinical symptoms, and thyrotropin levels up to 5 years after levothyroxine was initiated. We excluded persons who had a history of hyperthyroidism, pituitary disease, or thyroid surgery; those who were taking thyroid-altering medication or if the levothyroxine prescription was related to pregnancy; and those who did not have a thyrotropin level measured within 3 months before the initiation of levothyroxine.
Main outcomes and measures: The median thyrotropin level at the time of the index levothyroxine prescription, the odds of initiation of levothyroxine therapy at thyrotropin levels of 10.0 mIU/L or less, and the age-stratified odds of developing a low or suppressed thyrotropin level after levothyroxine therapy.
Results: Between 2001 and 2009, the median thyrotropin level at the initiation of levothyroxine therapy fell from 8.7 to 7.9 mIU/L. The odds ratio for prescribing levothyroxine at thyrotropin levels of 10.0 mIU/L or less in 2009 compared with 2001 (adjusted for changes in population demographics) was 1.30 (95% CI, 1.19-1.42; P < .001). Older individuals and individuals with cardiac risk factors had higher odds of initiation of levothyroxine therapy with a thyrotropin level 10.0 mIU/L or less. At 5 years after levothyroxine initiation, 5.8% of individuals had a thyrotropin level of <0.1 mIU/L. Individuals with depression or tiredness at baseline had increased odds of developing a suppressed thyrotropin level, whereas individuals with cardiac risk factors (eg, atrial fibrillation, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and raised lipid levels) did not.
Conclusions and relevance: We observed a trend toward levothyroxine treatment of more marginal degrees of hypothyroidism and a substantial risk of developing a suppressed thyrotropin level following therapy. Large-scale prospective studies are required to assess the risk-benefit ratio of current practice.