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Sheehan’s Syndrome and Hypothyroidism

A look at a rare pituitary condition that causes hypothyroidism.
Sheehan’s Syndrome and Hypothyroidism
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Sheehan’s syndrome, a rare but potentially life-altering condition, is often characterized by its slow onset and vague symptoms, leading to delayed diagnosis and significant complications. This syndrome, resulting from damage to the pituitary gland after severe postpartum hemorrhage, can have far-reaching effects, including the development of hypothyroidism and other endocrine dysfunctions. The interplay between Sheehan’s syndrome and thyroid dysfunction presents a complex challenge for both patients and healthcare providers. Understanding the intricacies of this relationship is crucial for timely diagnosis and effective management. In this article, we delve into the connection between Sheehan’s syndrome and thyroid dysfunction, exploring the diagnostic and treatment challenges, as well as the impact on well-being and quality of life.

Understanding the pituitary gland

To understand Sheehan’s syndrome and how it affects the thyroid, it’s necessary to first look at the functions of the pituitary gland. The pituitary is a vital endocrine gland located at the base of the brain, beneath the hypothalamus. It is often referred to as the “master gland” due to its role in regulating and controlling various bodily functions through the secretion of hormones. The hormones produced by the pituitary gland act as messengers, transmitting information to distant cells and regulating their activity, thereby influencing a wide range of bodily processes. The pituitary gland’s intricate control over hormone production and release makes it a crucial component of the endocrine system, with its dysfunction potentially leading to various hormonal and metabolic disorders.

Here are the key hormones released by a normal pituitary gland.

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): Stimulates the thyroid gland to produce and release thyroid hormone, which regulates metabolism.
  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH): Stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which plays a crucial role in stress response, metabolism, and immune function.
  • Luteinizing hormone (LH) and Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH): Control reproductive functioning and sexual characteristics. In women, they stimulate the ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone; in men, they stimulate testosterone and sperm production.
  • Prolactin (PRL): Stimulates the breasts to produce milk. It is secreted in large amounts during pregnancy and breastfeeding but is present at all times in both men and women.
  • Growth hormone (GH): Affects growth and development, stimulates protein production, and influences fat distribution.

What is Sheehan’s syndrome?

Sheehan’s syndrome, also known as postpartum pituitary gland necrosis, is a rare condition that occurs when the pituitary gland is damaged due to hemorrhage and hypovolemic shock, usually during or after childbirth.

Hypovolemic shock is a life-threatening condition. As the body’s blood volume decreases, the heart struggles to pump enough blood to sustain vital organs, potentially leading to multiorgan failure if left untreated.

In some cases, this extensive bleeding reduces the blood flow to the pituitary gland, leading to damage or death of pituitary cells and resulting in Sheehan’s syndrome. The pituitary gland’s ability to function is damaged, resulting in a decrease in one or more of the hormones it normally secretes. This condition is known as hypopituitarism. In addition to major hemorrhage during or after childbirth, injury, or surgery, hypopituitarism can also be caused by pituitary tumors, poor blood supply to the pituitary gland, infections, inflammatory diseases, head trauma, genetic diseases, and surgical damage to the pituitary or the blood vessels and nerves leading to it.

Ultimately, the hypopituitarism of Sheehan’s syndrome can lead to partial or complete failure to secrete pituitary hormones, including TSH, ACTH, LH, FSH, PRL, and GH.

Sheehan’s syndrome is less common in developed countries due to advanced obstetrical practices and more experienced medical providers and facilities. However, it can be a complication of childbirth anywhere.

What are the symptoms of Sheehan’s syndrome?

The symptoms of Sheehan’s syndrome can vary and are caused by damage to the pituitary gland, leading to a decrease in one or more of the hormones it normally secretes.

One of the primary early symptoms of Sheehan’s syndrome is an inability to breastfeed. This occurs due to the damage caused to the pituitary gland during childbirth. The pituitary gland produces prolactin, a hormone that stimulates milk production. If the pituitary gland is damaged, the production of prolactin can be significantly reduced, leading to difficulty in breastfeeding and an inability to produce breast milk (agalactorrhea).

Hormonal imbalances are also prevalent in Sheehan’s syndrome. The pituitary gland releases various hormones essential for the body’s normal functioning. When the gland is damaged, it can lead to deficiencies in hormones such as luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and imbalances in estrogen and progesterone levels. These imbalances can cause irregular or absent menstrual periods, low libido, infertility, low sex drive, and hot flashes.

Another common symptom is fatigue and weakness. The pituitary gland regulates hormones that control energy levels and metabolism. When it is compromised in Sheehan’s Syndrome, it can result in chronic fatigue and a lack of energy.

In some cases, Sheehan’s syndrome can also cause symptoms related to low blood pressure. This includes dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting. The damaged pituitary gland may fail to produce enough antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also known as vasopressin, which helps regulate blood pressure. As a result, blood pressure can drop significantly, leading to these symptoms.

Finally, Sheehan’s syndrome can cause hypothyroidism, which may manifest as sensitivity to cold, weight gain, dry skin and hair, joint pain, cold intolerance, fatigue, and constipation, among other symptoms of an underactive thyroid

These symptoms can be acute or chronic, with the acute form showing considerable damage and symptoms appearing soon after delivery. The chronic form may not present for months or even years after childbirth. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial to manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for individuals with Sheehan’s syndrome.

How is Sheehan’s syndrome diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Sheehan’s syndrome involves a multifaceted approach, beginning with a thorough clinical evaluation to assess the patient’s medical history, including obstetric events and postpartum complications. Laboratory tests play a crucial role in identifying hormone deficiencies and abnormalities. These tests may reveal low levels of pituitary hormones. Additionally, imaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans of the pituitary gland, can provide valuable insights into the structural integrity of the pituitary and the presence of any abnormalities or necrosis.

Doctors sometimes use hormone stimulation tests to assess the pituitary gland’s ability to respond to specific stimuli. For example, the insulin tolerance test (ITT) can evaluate the pituitary-adrenal axis by inducing hypoglycemia and measuring the adrenal response. Similarly, the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) stimulation test can assess the pituitary’s ability to release gonadotropins. These tests can provide valuable information about the functional capacity of the pituitary gland and help confirm the diagnosis of Sheehan’s syndrome.

The diagnosis of Sheehan’s syndrome is often challenging for several reasons.

  • First, the condition is relatively rare in the U.S. and is not necessarily on the diagnostic radar for many practitioners.
  • Second, the symptoms are nonspecific and overlap with other conditions such as hypothyroidism, postpartum depression, major depressive disorder, and pituitary tumor.
  • Third, the delayed onset of symptoms following childbirth makes it harder to identify.

Given the complexity of the diagnosis, it is best diagnosed and managed by a team that includes an endocrinologist, neurologist/neurosurgeon, obstetrician, internist, primary care provider, and radiologist.

How is Sheehan’s syndrome related to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis?

Sheehan’s syndrome and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are two distinct conditions, but they can be related due to their impact on the endocrine system. While there is no direct causative relationship between Sheehan’s syndrome and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, they can coexist in some cases. One study suggests that patients with Sheehan’s syndrome may develop postpartum autoimmune thyroiditis, which can manifest as transient thyrotoxicosis followed by hypothyroidism. Additionally, patients with hypothyroidism due to Sheehan’s syndrome may have unexpectedly normal or elevated TSH levels.

It’s important to note that the relationship between Sheehan’s syndrome and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is not fully understood, and further research is needed to explore the potential connections between these conditions.

How is Sheehan’s syndrome related to hypothyroidism?

Sheehan’s syndrome is related to hypothyroidism due to the impact of pituitary gland damage on thyroid hormone production. The pituitary gland plays a crucial role in regulating thyroid function by secreting TSH, which stimulates the thyroid to produce thyroid hormones. In Sheehan’s syndrome, the damage to the pituitary gland can lead to a deficiency in TSH, resulting in secondary hypothyroidism.

Patients with Sheehan’s syndrome may experience symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue, weight gain, constipation, and cold intolerance, which can occur months – or even years – after childbirth. Additionally, individuals with Sheehan’s syndrome may have low free T3 and free T4 levels, with inappropriately normal or low TSH levels. This paradoxical and inconsistent thyroid function test result is a characteristic feature of Sheehan’s syndrome and reflects the disruption of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis.

The prevalence of hypothyroidism in patients with Sheehan’s syndrome is significant. While various studies offer different estimates, one study found that more than 11% of women with Sheehan’s syndrome develop hypothyroidism.

How is Sheehan’s syndrome treated?

The treatment of Sheehan’s syndrome involves the lifelong replacement of deficient hormones. Hormone replacement therapy is the cornerstone of managing Sheehan’s syndrome, aiming to correct endocrine abnormalities and reduce mortality due to hormone deficiencies. The specific hormone replacement depends on the deficient hormones. For example:

  • Hypothyroidism: It can be treated with thyroid hormone replacement medication, like levothyroxine or natural desiccated thyroid drugs.
  • Cortisol Deficiency: It can be treated by replacement with prednisone or hydrocortisone.
  • Gonadotropin Deficiency: It should be treated with estrogen if the uterus has been removed and with a combination of estrogen and progesterone if a uterus is present.
  • Growth Hormone Deficiency: Growth hormone replacement therapy may be considered for adults with documented growth hormone deficiency.
  • Prolactin Deficiency: Prolactin replacement therapy may be considered to stimulate milk production in cases of lactation failure.

The treatment is vital to correct endocrine abnormalities and reduce morbidity and mortality associated with hormone deficiencies.

What should patients with both Sheehan’s syndrome and hypothyroidism know?

Patients with Sheehan’s syndrome and hypothyroidism should be aware of the following key points:

Delayed onset of symptoms: Symptoms of hypothyroidism may occur months after childbirth, and patients may experience fatigue, weakness, hair loss, constipation, weight gain, and cold intolerance.

Paradoxical TSH levels: Patients with hypothyroidism due to Sheehan’s syndrome may have unexpectedly normal or low TSH levels, with low Free T4 and Free T3 levels, which can be characteristic of this condition.

Need for lifelong hormone replacement: The basis for the treatment of Sheehan’s syndrome is the lifelong replacement of deficient hormones. Hypothyroidism can be treated with thyroid hormone replacement medication.

Potential coexistence with autoimmune thyroiditis: Patients with Sheehan’s syndrome may develop postpartum autoimmune thyroiditis, leading to transient thyrotoxicosis (hyperthyroidism) followed by hypothyroidism. This highlights the need for ongoing monitoring and management of thyroid function.

Complex interplay of hormones: The relationship between Sheehan’s syndrome and hypothyroidism underscores the complex interplay between the pituitary gland and thyroid function, emphasizing the importance of appropriate hormone replacement therapy in managing these conditions.

A note from Paloma

While Sheehan’s syndrome is rare, it can have a profound impact on thyroid function, often leading to hypothyroidism. The delayed onset of symptoms and the complex nature of pituitary dysfunction in Sheehan’s syndrome underscore the importance of raising awareness about this condition and its potential long-term consequences, including hypothyroidism. Early recognition and appropriate management are crucial in improving patient outcomes and preventing complications associated with hormone deficiencies.

Paloma Health, with its focus on comprehensive and personalized care for thyroid conditions, is an ideal medical practice to manage lifelong hypothyroidism in individuals affected by Sheehan’s syndrome. With a patient-centered approach, specialized expertise, and commitment to ongoing support, Paloma Health offers members a tailored and holistic framework for all facets of hypothyroidism, providing optimal care to enhance the quality of life for all hypothyroid patients.

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Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, Ph.D., contributed to this article.


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Mary Shomon

Patient Advocate

Mary Shomon is an internationally-recognized writer, award-winning patient advocate, health coach, and activist, and the New York Times bestselling author of 15 books on health and wellness, including the Thyroid Diet Revolution and Living Well With Hypothyroidism. On social media, Mary empowers and informs a community of more than a quarter million patients who have thyroid and hormonal health challenges.

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