Recurrent pain of any sort can be a hindrance to everyday life and well-being. However, headaches and migraines tend to be particularly disruptive.
The occurrence of head pain is exceptionally common with nearly 90 percent of the population have occasional headaches and an estimated 12 percent of Americans experiencing severe migraines. A highly influential factor regarding the occurrence and severity of head pains is thyroid function. Therefore, having a strong understanding of the thyroid, its connection to headaches, and knowing how to effectively assess and treat it may help alleviate disruptive head pains.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a small butterfly shaped gland located in the neck. This powerful system influences various bodily functions and aspects of wellness including weight, temperature regulation, metabolism, growth, cognitive function, and much more. The thyroid regulates these areas through the production of various hormones including T4, T3, and Reverse T3. Because of its significant influence, even minor fluctuations in thyroid activity can trigger serious dysfunction and a wide array of symptoms.
It is estimated that 27 million adults in the United States have some form of thyroid dysfunction. An underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, is the most common form of thyroid dysfunction in the United States. The condition causes thyroid hormone levels to decline resulting in slowing of bodily function. This is typically accompanied by various symptoms including fatigue, loss of libido, weight gain, depression, and reduced cognitive function. Hypothyroidism may also impede neurological function and contribute to the development and increased severity of headaches.
The basic definition of a headache is pain located in the head and upper neck. Although there are several types of headaches, most are not significantly different from one another. Migraines, however, do separate themselves in several ways. Pain caused by a migraine can remain for hours to days. Additionally, the intensity of migraine pain can reach a level where the vision, and sensitivity to noise and odor may be altered. Migraines may also cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
Most, but not all, hypothyroid patients experience hormone headaches. These headaches are often misdiagnosed as a common headache or migraine. However, thyroid-related headaches actually present a unique set of symptoms that may be used to recognize underlying thyroid dysfunction. According to the International Headache Society, headaches caused by hypothyroidism typically have the following attributes:
- Felt on both sides of the head
- Remains constant
- Pain is mild to moderate (similar to a tension headache)
- Typically, does not induce nausea or vomiting
Even though these symptoms describe most cases of thyroid-related head pain, symptom severity and occurrence are dependent on the individual. Additionally, as thyroid function declines, the severity of headache symptoms can increase and, in some cases, appear similar to a migraine. Those with only mild hypothyroidism or minimal thyroid imbalance may experience the above symptoms at reduced intensity.
Finding the Link Between Hypothyroidism and Headaches
A definitive cause of headaches and migraines has not yet been discovered. However, research suggests that thyroid dysfunction may play a role. One study found that hypothyroidism may increase the severity and duration of migraines among those who already suffer from head pains. Furthermore, reduced thyroid function may inhibit treatment of head pains while also increasing their frequency.
Interestingly, headaches may be used to assess an individual’s predisposition for thyroid disease. The International Headache Society estimates that 30 percent of people with hypothyroidism have a history of headaches. This is supported by a study found in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain showing that those with a history of headaches are 21 percent more likely to develop hypothyroidism. This risk nearly doubles among who have had or currently suffer from a migraine disorder. Researchers believe this information may be useful in determining predisposition for thyroid disease.
Although multiple studies show a strong correlation between thyroid function and headache frequency, duration, and intensity, there is not yet a definitive answer regarding the true cause of head pains.
How to Test for Thyroid Dysfunction
If a patient’s headaches and migraines are caused by thyroid dysfunction, it is unlikely that their condition will improve without first resolving the underlying thyroid issue. Sadly, most cases of thyroid disease go unnoticed until they reach a heightened level of severity.
There are several reasons why diagnosis may be delayed including vagueness of symptoms and unfamiliarity with the signs of thyroid disease. However, perhaps the greatest contributor is ineffective testing.
Most doctors rely only on thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) values to assess thyroid function. However, using TSH alone only describes how well the thyroid is communicating and not actual hormone levels – learn more about the inadequacy of the TSH test here. To properly assess thyroid function, one must at minimum have their levels of TSH, T4, T3, and Reverse T3 tested. Identifying discrepancies in these values is far more effective for diagnosing thyroid dysfunction that could contribute to headaches and migraines.
Effectively Treating Thyroid Disease
If a patient is diagnosed with hypothyroidism, they will most likely be prescribed thyroid hormones to make up for the body’s inability to produce the appropriate amount. The most commonly prescribed thyroid medication is a synthetic form of T4 called levothyroxine. However, levothyroxine may not be effective in all cases.
Many patients with hypothyroidism see little to no improvement of their condition when taking synthetic thyroid hormones. In such cases, other thyroid hormone therapies including T3 or combination T3/T4 formulations or time-released T3 may provide better results.
Rest Your Head Easy by Supporting the Thyroid
Studies suggest that the thyroid may have significant influence over the frequency, duration, and intensity of headaches and migraines. Those who suffer from recurring head pains may benefit greatly from having their thyroid thoroughly assessed and treated. Optimization of thyroid function may not only alleviate headaches and migraines, but also improve numerous factors of wellness. If you experience regular headaches and other symptoms of thyroid dysfunction be sure to talk to your doctor about thyroid testing and thyroid treatment options.
1. Kent Holtorf, MD. “Diagnosis of Hypothyroidism: Are we getting what we want from TSH testing?” https://www.nahypothyroidism.org/how-accurate-is-tsh-testing/.
2. Kent Holtorf, MD. “Understanding Local Control of Thyroid Hormones: (Deiodinases Function and Activity).” https://www.nahypothyroidism.org/deiodinases/.
3. Bougea, A et al. “Efficacy of levothyroxine in migraine patients with subclinical hypothyroidism.” Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) 2017. Amsterdam, Netherlands; June 27, 2017; abstract O4111.
4. International Headache Society (IHS). “Headache attributed to hypothyroidism.” The International Classification of Headache Disorders (3rd edition).
5. Lisotto C et al. “The comorbidity between migraine and hypothyroidism.” J Headache Pain. 2013;14(Suppl 1): P138.
6. Martin, A et al. “Headache Disorders May Be a Risk Factor for the Development of New Onset Hypothyroidism.” Headache. 2017;57(1):21-30.