This is a very simple blog post about thyroid blood test results that I was prompted to write as a couple of thyroid patients seemed to find this information useful. It is basic maths and I have always done this calculation quickly, without even mentioning it when I was talking to a thyroid patient online or was involved in a 1-1 coaching session. I have found it quite useful though.
What is the Percentile of the Range for any result?
The percentile of a range is how large the result is when expressed as a percentage of the entire width of the reference range. As an example, for a reference range of 1 to 4, a result of ‘4’ is 100 percentile (100%), a result of ‘1’ would be 0 percentile (0%) and a result of ‘2’ would be 50 percentile of the reference range (50%).
How Percentiles be Useful for Thyroid Patients?
When patients get thyroid blood test results like Free T4 (FT4) and Free T3 (FT3), it can be very obvious that they are low in one of the results, or high in some cases. However, over time the results might seem to change but it can be very hard to spot whether the changes are significant or not. Using percentiles can clarify where the test result is in the reference range. It is also significantly easier to see if the thyroid hormone has actually improved or deteriorated over time.
Note: Free T3 is the bio-available measure of T3, the active thyroid hormone. FT3 is the T3 in the bloodstream which is not bound to protein (thyroid binding globulin). Total T3 can be measured also, but this includes the bound T3 and as such it is not very useful.
Sometimes, a thyroid patient needs to change the laboratory that is being used to do the test. This almost always means that the reference range will be slightly different. It can then be very hard to see if the test result is better, worse or the same as with the previous laboratory. Using percentiles makes the comparison a lot easier, although different laboratories have different assays (the actual testing method in the lab.) and this can also change the result.
Very often a doctor or endocrinologist will look at the laboratory test results and tell the thyroid patient that all is well, using the famous phrase, “Your results are in range”, or even more annoyingly, “Your results are normal”, even though you feel like death! Using percentiles can quickly show very low results, especially for the active hormone FT3.
So, using percentiles can be helpful and insightful.
How is a Percentile Calculated?
Let us use some actual thyroid test results to make this more realistic. Here are some results from an actual thyroid patient, who converts quite well and is on a combination of T4 and T3:
TSH 0.001 mIU/L
FT4 18.20 (9.01-19.05) pmol/L
FT3 5.40 (2.62-5.70) pmol/ L
I do not use percentiles for TSH. I do not pay much heed to TSH when it is not high. You can read plenty about my disregard for low TSH in my other blog posts and in my books.
I do use percentiles for FT3 especially, as it is the active hormone. I use it for FT4 and for Reverse T3 (rT3) if it is available.
Let’s go straight to FT3. The bottom of the FT3 reference range is 2.62, and the top of the fT3 reference range is 5.70 in this case. The length of the reference range is known as the Reference Interval and this is 5.70 – 2.62 = 3.08 reference interval for FT3.
We also need the amount above the bottom of the range that the actual FT3 result is 5.40 – 2.62 = 2.78.
So, all we do now is divide the amount of FT3 above the bottom of the range by the FT3 reference interval x 100%.
FT3 percentile of the range = 2.78 / 3.08 x 100% = 90.25%.
Clearly, this very simple formula also lends itself to being put into a spreadsheet for those thyroid patients that are tracking their thyroid labs over time with medication changes.
For the above results, the FT4 reference interval is 19.05-9.01 = 10.04.
The amount above the bottom of the range of the FT4 result was: 18.20 – 9.01 = 9.19.
So the FT4 percentile is 9.19 / 10.04 x 100% = 91.5 %.
Clearly, if there is an rT3 result, then the rT3 percentile can be calculated in the same way.
For completeness, you can be below the range for a thyroid test result, i.e. a negative percentile, and it is also possible to be above the range and have a > 100% percentile.
For those of you who are more visual, here is a very simple graphic explaining the above:
How can Percentiles be used?
I have already mentioned that it is far easier to see if the thyroid lab results have changed by using percentiles.
However, it is critical to be aware that only changes in FT3 affect symptoms in a meaningful way. If FT3 stays the same but FT4 goes up, it is unlikely that you will experience improvement. FT4 is not a proper thyroid hormone and it does not connect to the thyroid receptors within our cells. Only FT3 is the active hormone and tracks symptoms:
The other thing to be aware of is that having results that fall within the reference range is not sufficient to feel well. Every thyroid patient needs to have results that fall in the right part of the reference range for them, individually, in order to feel well:
So, tracking FT3, FT4 and rT3 results and their percentiles can be very helpful.
I prefer NOT to generalise, as thyroid patients are individuals and therefore have different needs. But in general, thyroid patients do better with an FT3 result that is in the upper half of the FT3 reference range or even the upper quartile. So, in general, they do better with FT3 > 50% of the range and often >75% of the range or even nearer the top of the range. Frequently, this also has to be matched by an rT3 percentile that is NOT high.
Anyway, I never thought to write this blog post previously, but in the hope that it may help some people, I have gone ahead and done so.
Best wishes, Paul