You may be surprised to learn there is a headache disorder associated with having an under-active thyroid gland (called hypothyroidism).
The thyroid gland (a butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of the neck) produces and releases thyroid hormone, which controls the body’s metabolism, or how the body uses energy.
There are a number of causes of hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis is the most common one and occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your thyroid gland.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
In the early stages of hypothyroidism, a person may experience few to no symptoms. But as the disease progresses and the body’s metabolic functions slow down, a number of symptoms may appear.
According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), here are some symptoms of hypothyroidism:
Fatigue and drowsiness
- Forgetfulness and difficulty with learning
- Brittle hair, skin, and nails
- Puffy or swollen face
- Sore muscles
- Weight gain
- Heavy and/or irregular menstrual cycles
- Increased frequency of miscarriages
- Increased sensitivity to medications
- Headaches may also develop from hypothyroidism, as defined by the International Headache Society (IHS).
Headache From Hypothyroidism
According to the IHS, a headache from hypothyroidism is typically located on both sides of the head, is non-throbbing and constant, and is not associated with nausea or vomiting.
In other words, a headache attributed to hypothyroidism usually feels like a tension headache than a migraine. In fact, according to a study in Cephalalgia, many of the participants with headaches from hypothyroidism described their headaches as one-sided, throbbing, and linked to nausea and vomiting.
This indicates that headache symptoms may vary quite drastically from one person to another.
Interestingly, a headache from hypothyroidism generally follows the same course as a person’s hypothyroidism. This means that if a person’s thyroid disease worsens, their headache also typically worsens. Likewise, if their hypothyroid state resolves, the headache should resolve.
Of course, there could be other causes of your headache, ones that are not at all linked to your thyroid. Your doctor can help you best determine the cause through testing.
Hypothyroidism and Migraines
A study in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that hypothyroidism was more common in those with migraines than in the general population, suggesting a plausible link between these two health problems.
The study authors also noted that “headache associated with hypothyroidism” is actually rarely seen by doctors, whereas it’s common to see a patient with hypothyroidism who also has migraines.
Research also suggests that for those with hypothyroidism, there is often a history of migraine in childhood. Lastly, hypothyroidism may serve as a risk factor for the transformation from episodic to chronic migraine.
In the end, experts still do not quite understand the precise migraine-hypothyroidism connection.
However, this research may spur doctors to be more thoughtful about checking thyroid hormone levels in people who also have migraines.
Treating Your Thyroid and Your Headache
It’s not rare for people who have hypothyroidism to also have a headache disorder, and treatment of the under-active thyroid may reduce the headaches (a double bonus). That being said, sometimes headaches do not get better with thyroid treatment, especially if the headache is really a migraine or tension-type headache. In these instances, treating the thyroid gland may even worsen the headache.
This is a complicated topic and a perfect example of how your health care requires an individualized approach, as not everyone’s symptoms and medical problems manifest in the same way.
But with close and careful monitoring by your doctor, you can heal well and improve your quality of life, whether that means treating your thyroid disease, your headache disorder, or both.
It is also worth mentioning that in the presence of hypothyroidism, headache can rarely be a manifestation of pituitary tumors. Your doctor will order an MRI of the pituitary gland in your brain if he or she is concerned about this.