Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland makes insufficient hormones to meet the body’s needs. This can cause symptoms to occur, including in the hands.

The thyroid hormone plays a role in keeping the organs such as the heart and brain working properly. It also regulates metabolism, breathing, body temperature, and cholesterol levels.

If there are low levels of this hormone, a wide range of diverse symptoms may develop. Signs of hypothyroidism in the hands can vary from mild to severe.

This article looks at what hypothyroidism is, how it affects the hands, the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Hypothyroidism — also called underactive thyroid — is a type of thyroid disease. It causes the gland to produce low levels of thyroid hormone. This may lead to many of the body’s functions slowing down.

Usually, the thyroid, a small gland in the neck, secretes thyroid hormone into the blood. The hormone travels to the tissues throughout the body.

In the United States, about 5 out of 100 people over 12 years of age have hypothyroidism. However, many of those individuals have only mild symptoms. Some people may not even realize they have a problem until symptoms worsen.

Hypothyroidism affects various parts of the body, including the hands.

The extent or severity of hand-related symptoms may vary. Some of the signs and symptoms in the hands do not interfere with functioning. However, other symptoms can impact daily life if severe enough.

People with hypothyroidism may have the following symptoms:

  • cold hands
  • pain, numbness, and a tingling sensation in the hand and fingers known as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • brittle fingernails
  • white ridges on the nails
  • nail splitting
  • slow fingernail growth

Hypothyroidism can also cause pain in the joints and muscles.

In some cases, this pain may affect the hands. Symptoms may include:

  • stiff joints
  • tenderness
  • swelling of the finger joints

Additional symptoms

In addition to affecting the hands, symptoms of hypothyroidism commonly include:

Hypothyroidism can develop for several reasons. One of the most common causes includes Hashimoto’s disease. This is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system accidentally attacks the thyroid gland. The thyroid becomes damaged and no longer produces enough thyroid hormone.

Other conditions that damage the thyroid gland can also lead to hypothyroidism and include:

  • radiation treatment to the thyroid gland for Hodgkin’s lymphoma or cancers of the head or neck
  • certain medications with side effects that damage the gland, including lithium, amiodarone, and interferon alpha
  • people who need to have part of or the entire thyroid removed due to thyroid cancer, or Graves’ disease
  • inflammation of the thyroid, thyroiditis, due to a virus or autoimmune attack
  • congenital hypothyroidism
  • damage to the pituitary gland by injury, a tumor, radiation, or surgery, may impede the role in thyroid function

Read more about the specific causes of hypothyroidism.

The risk of hypothyroidism increases if a person has:

Both males and females can develop hypothyroidism. However, hypothyroidism is more common in females and people over the age of 60. The risk of hypothyroidism increases during pregnancy, after delivery, and around menopause.

Many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism are the same in both males and females.

Researchers have found that hyperthyroidism leads to reduced libido in males and females. However, there is mixed evidence around hypothyroidism’s impact on male libido. Hypothyroid females demonstrated impairments in desire, orgasm, and pain during intercourse.

Additionally, males and females may also experience symptoms such as muscle cramps, fatigue, and muscle weakness. Doctors refer to this as hypothyroid myopathy. It is a common feature in hypothyroidism affecting about 79% of people.

Differences in symptoms also occur across males and females.

Common symptoms of hypothyroidism in females may include:

  • Changes to the menstrual cycle: Low thyroid levels can lead to irregular menstrual cycles along with lighter or heavier flows.
  • Changes in ovulation: Females with hypothyroidism may not ovulate every cycle, which can cause fertility problems. Hypothyroidism may affect about 2–4% of females of reproductive age.
  • Pregnancy complications: According to the American Thyroid Association, females with hypothyroidism during pregnancy have an increased risk of pregnancy complications. Their child may also have an increased risk of developmental problems, such as brain development.

Hypothyroidism is common in males with erectile dysfunction. Thyroid dysfunction also leads to multiple alterations of semen quality, including reduced semen volume and density.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism may be mild, and someone may not realize they have an issue. However, anyone that thinks they may have low thyroid levels should consult their healthcare professional.

Some signs to contact a doctor include the following:

  • ongoing fatigue
  • unexpected weight gain
  • feeling cold all the time
  • changes in nails, such as brittleness
  • thinning hair

Although the symptoms above can occur in other conditions, people should consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis so that suitable treatment can start.

The symptoms of hypothyroidism may present similar to several other types of medical conditions.

After a symptom review, physical examination, and medical history overview, the doctor can diagnose hypothyroidism with a blood test.

The most common blood test is the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test. This detects the amounts of TSH in the blood and informs the doctor on whether there is too much or too little thyroid hormone.

Read more about the TSH test here.

Treatment for hypothyroidism involves taking medication that replaces the thyroid hormone. At present, doctors cannot cure hypothyroidism, but they can help people to control it in most cases.

A person will need to take medication for hypothyroidism for the rest of their life. It may take a little trial and error to get the correct dose.

Doctors may prescribe levothyroxine, which is similar to the hormone the thyroid makes. The initial dosage will generally depend on a person’s weight. However, doctors usually retest 6–8 weeks later and adjust the dosage based on these results.

The medication comes in three forms, including an injectable. In most cases, doctors prescribe it in pill form but may offer the liquid form in rare cases where there might be an absorption issue.

Side effects with levothyroxine can occur. If the dose is too high, side effects may include:

  • headache
  • weight loss
  • heat sensitivity
  • trouble sleeping

Read more about other medications for hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. It can develop due to autoimmune diseases, radiation therapy, and medication side effects.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism can affect various parts of the body, including the hands. Hand-related symptoms may include cold hands, joint pain, and tingling.

Treatment may include taking thyroid medication to replace the thyroid hormone the body is not making naturally.