In a prospective study of critically ill hypothyroxinemic we assessed the relationship between serum TSH and T4 during the return of serum T4 to normal during recovery. In this longitudinal study of 60 patients with a variety of critical illnesses, including burns, septicemia, and acute renal failure, serum T4 fell to less than 2.7 micrograms/dl (35 nmol/liter) in 24 patients, of whom 14 survived with return of T4 to normal. A rise in total T4 of more than 1.9 microgram/dl (25 nmol/liter) within 96 h occurred 13 times in 10 patients, while 4 patients had slower increases in T4. All 13 episodes of rapid T4 rise [1.7 +/- 0.8 (+/- SD) to 5.6 +/- 2.1 micrograms/dl] were associated with a marked increase in serum TSH (1.1 +/- 0.8 to 7.0 +/- 5.2 mU/liter), and TSH was transiently above normal during 8 episodes of T4 recovery. In the 6 episodes with sampling less than 6 h apart, the TSH rise consistently preceded the T4 rise. In the 4 patients who received dopamine, TSH and T4 remained low until cessation of therapy. During the TSH rise, only minor changes, which could not account for the increase in total T4, occurred in T4-binding globulin (12.9 +/- 3.3 to 14.8 +/- 3.3 mg/liter), prealbumin (208 +/- 73 to 234 +/- 82 mg/liter), and albumin (28.3 +/- 2.9 to 31.9 +/- 2.9 g/liter). Mean free T4 increased (0.60 +/- 0.34 to 1.45 +/- 0.56 ng/dl), as did total T3 (16 +/- 14 to 76 +/- 44 ng/dl), during the phase of TSH rise, suggesting that the increase in TSH was not simply a consequence of diminished negative feedback due to increased plasma binding. The very close and consistent temporal relationship between TSH and T4 during the recovery phase suggests that TSH may have an essential role in the return of T4 to normal during recovery from critical nonthyroidal illness.