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What Are the Symptoms of a Malfunctioning Hypothalamus?

Signs and symptoms of a malfunctioning hypothalamus (hypothalamic dysfunction) usually develop due to various reasons.

Signs and symptoms of a malfunctioning hypothalamus (hypothalamic dysfunction) usually develop due to various reasons. Hypothalamic dysfunction may cause the following problems:

  • Too little or too much growth in children
  • Early or late puberty
  • Headache
  • Loss of vision

If the malfunctioning hypothalamus affects the thyroid, the affected person can get underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Weight gain
  • Dry skin
  • Constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Depression

If the malfunctioning hypothalamus affects the adrenal glands, symptoms that develop may include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Susceptibility to infections

What is the function of the hypothalamus?

The hypothalamus helps in maintaining the coordination between various systems of the body. Its function includes regulation of various factors:

  • Growth
  • Weight
  • Body temperature
  • Appetite
  • Salt and water balance
  • Sex drive
  • Childbirth
  • Production of breast milk
  • Sleep–wake cycle 
  • Memory
  • Emotions
  • Behavior

Another important function of the hypothalamus is to control the pituitary gland, which lies below the hypothalamus. The pituitary gland is an important organ that controls organs such as the adrenal glands, thyroid gland, ovaries, and testes.

How is a malfunctioning hypothalamus diagnosed?

To diagnose if the hypothalamus is malfunctioning, laboratory tests are done that examine the patient’s blood and urine for hormones:

  • Cortisol
  • Estrogen
  • Pituitary hormones
    • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH])
    • Growth hormone (GH)
    • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)
    • Luteinizing hormone (LH)
    • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
    • Prolactin
  • Testosterone
  • Thyroid hormones
  • Sodium levels

Other diagnostic tests include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 
  • Computed tomographic (CT) scan
  • Visual field tests (in case of a tumor)
  • Genetic tests

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How is a malfunctioning hypothalamus treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of the malfunctioning hypothalamus and the patient’s presenting signs and symptoms.

  • Hormonal deficiencies: Hormone replacement therapy (replacing the missing hormones with manmade hormonal pills, for example, levothyroxine tablets for hypothyroidism)
  • Tumors: Surgery or radiation 
  • Nutritional deficiency: Nutritional counseling and medications that control the patient’s appetite
  • Kallmann syndrome: Lifelong sex hormone replacement therapy

What are the complications of a malfunctioning hypothalamus?

Hormonal deficiencies due to a malfunctioning hypothalamus can cause complications such as:

  • Growth problems (short stature)
  • Heart problems
  • Obesity and faulty eating habits
  • Low blood pressure
  • Disturbances in the water and salt levels in the body
  • Inability to deal with stress (such as during surgery or infection)
  • Osteoporosis (thin or fragile bones)
  • Erection problems
  • Infertility
  • Difficulty during labor
  • Breastfeeding problems
  • A decrease in sex response
  • Early or late puberty
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders

If the cause of a malfunctioning hypothalamus is a brain tumor, the complications can be as follows:

  • Seizures (convulsions)
  • Disturbances in vision
  • Blindness

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Medically Reviewed on 12/8/2020

References

Sanchez Jimenez JG, De Jesus O. Hypothalamic Dysfunction. [Updated 2020 Jul 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560743/

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