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Thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) are the 2 biologically active thyroid hormones. T4 makes up more than 80% of circulating thyroid hormones.
Following secretion by the thyroid gland, approximately 70% of circulating T4 and T3 are bound to thyroid-binding globulin (TBG), while 10% to 20% each are bound to transthyretin (TTR) and albumin, respectively. Less than 0.1% circulates as free T4 (FT4) or free T3 (FT3). FT4 and FT3 enter and leave cells freely by diffusion. Only the free hormones are biologically active, but bound and free fractions are in equilibrium. Equilibrium with TTR and albumin is rapid. By contrast, TBG binds thyroid hormones very tightly and equilibrium dissociation is slow. Biologically, TBG-bound thyroid hormone serves as a hormone reservoir and T4 serves as a prohormone for T3. Within cells, T4 is either converted to T3, which is about 5 times as potent as T4, or reverse T3, which is biologically inactive. Ultimately, T3, and to a much lesser degree T4, bind to the nuclear thyroid hormone receptor, altering gene expression patterns in a tissue-specific fashion.
Under normal physiologic conditions, FT4 and FT3 exert direct and indirect negative feedback on pituitary thyrotropin (thyroid-stimulating hormone: TSH) levels, the major hormone regulating thyroid gland activity. This results in tight regulation of thyroid hormone production and constant levels of FT4 and FT3 independent of the binding protein concentration. Measurement of FT4 and FT3, in conjunction with TSH measurement, therefore represents the best method to determine thyroid function status. It also allows determination of whether hyperthyroidism (increased FT4) or hypothyroidism (low FT4) are primary (the majority of cases, TSH altered in the opposite direction as FT4) or secondary/tertiary (hypothalamic/pituitary origin, TSH altered in the same direction as FT4). By contrast, total T4 and T3 levels can vary widely as a response to changes in binding protein levels, without any change in free thyroid hormone levels and, hence, actual thyroid function status.
FT4 is usually measured by automated analog immunoassays. In most instances, this will result in accurate results. However, abnormal types or quantities of binding proteins found in some patients and most often related to other illnesses or drug treatments, may interfere in the accurate measurement of FT4 by analog immunoassays. These problems can be overcome by measuring FT4 by equilibrium dialysis, free from interfering proteins.
Determining thyroid status of sick, hospitalized patients
Used where abnormal binding proteins are known to exist
Possibly useful in pediatric patients
All free hormone assays should be combined with thyroid-stimulating hormone measurements.
Free thyroxine (FT4) <0.8 ng/dL indicates possible hypothyroidism. FT4 >2.0 ng/dL indicates possible hyperthyroidism.
Neonates can have significantly higher FT4 levels. The hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis can take several days or, sometimes, weeks to mature.
The routine FT4 test (FRT4 / T4 [Thyroxine], Free, Serum) is faster and provides useful information in most patients.
Certain drugs may cause short-term free thyroxine (FT4) fluctuations.
- Acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin)
- Salicylic acid (salsalate)
Reference values apply to all ages.
1. De Brabandere VI, Hou P, Stockl D, et al: Isotope dilution-liquid chromatography/electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry for the determination of serum thyroxine as a potential reference method. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom 1998;12:1099-1103
2. Jain R, Uy HL: Increase in serum free thyroxine levels related to intravenous heparin treatment. Ann Intern Med 1996 Jan 1;124:74-75
3. Stockigt JR: Free thyroid hormone measurement. A critical appraisal. Clin Endocrinol Metab 2001 Jun;30:265-289