Your thyroid gland is an impressive little powerhouse. It is responsible for maintaining your body’s metabolism and produces two hormones that help maintain core body temperature and the production of amino acids and proteins. However, these hormones are also notorious for causing all sorts of health conditions when they are out of balance. That can include a thyroid headache.
It’s no surprise then to learn that your thyroid function can cause headaches, and even migraines if it’s not up to par. For many people suffering from headaches and migraines, being able to point to their thyroid as the cause of their pain would be a welcome answer.
Having the ability to attribute chronic migraines or headaches to thyroid function would not only make diagnosis simpler, but it would also open the doors to faster, more effective treatment.
But what’s the specific connection between headaches and thyroid function? Is there such a thing as a thyroid headache? And if the two issues are connected, what does that mean for treatment? In order to understand the link, we need to know what the thyroid gland is and exactly what it does.
Your Thyroid Gland
Shaped like a butterfly, the thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck just below the larynx or Adam’s apple. Like everything else in the body, it takes instructions from the brain, specifically the hypothalamus. This gland in the brain secretes TRH or thyrotropin-releasing hormone.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH (also known as thyrotropin) is released by the pituitary gland in response to the release of TRH by the hypothalamus.
TSH does exactly what its name suggests. It stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the hormones triiodothyronine or T3, and thyroxine, or T4, which maintains metabolism among other things. To make these hormones, the thyroid gland uses iodine and tyrosine, which we mainly get from our diet (this is why iodine was added to salt in 1924).
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, is the most common thyroid condition affecting people in the U.S. today. A report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that approximately one in twelve Americans over the age of 12 suffer from hypothyroidism.
Some populations, including women and individuals over 60, are more likely to have the condition, though it can affect virtually anyone. Hypothyroidism is an inheritable condition, meaning that if one or more of your family members has it, you are also at risk.
The primary characteristic of hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid gland. An underactive thyroid gland means that your thyroid isn’t producing enough of the hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Since the thyroid is responsible for maintaining a number of different systems, including metabolism, an underactive thyroid can cause a variety of symptoms including:
- Weight gain
- Mood swings
- Hair Loss
- Reduced cognitive function (brain fog)
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Muscle fatigue and soreness
- Thyroid headache
- Cold hands and feet due to poor circulation
Because these symptoms are so common, hypothyroid conditions can often go unnoticed or ignored by the person suffering the symptoms and their physician.
Many people can go years without treatment, never knowing anything is wrong until the symptoms become unbearable or cause a secondary medical condition that requires urgent treatment.
Hyperthyroidism is a condition where the thyroid gland is overactive and produces too much T3 and T4. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Weight loss
- Hair Loss
- Hand tremors or shaking
- Irritability and moodiness
- Sensitivity to high temperatures
- Missed or light menstrual periods
Hyperthyroidism can also be easily missed by both patient and physician. Many people with an overactive thyroid have had these symptoms for as long as they can remember and may assume it’s just their nature or part of their personality.
But if any of the above symptoms sound all too familiar to you, call the National Headache Institute today.
Diagnosing Thyroid Disease
It’s common for your physician to check your TSH levels on a yearly basis. But unfortunately, this isn’t a reliable indicator of thyroid function.
Other blood tests are required to get a definitive diagnosis. If you suspect your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, our doctors at the National Headache Institute can measure the levels of T3 and T4 via blood work along with TSH levels to determine if your thyroid is overactive or underactive.
Thyroid antibodies can also be checked to diagnose other thyroid conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. An ultrasound can also be done to determine if there is a growth or cyst on the thyroid gland, causing it to function ineffectively.
Headaches and Thyroid Function
A recent study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found that thyroid and Migraines had a strong connection with 21% of people who suffered a pre-existing headache condition were more likely to develop hypothyroidism. For migraine sufferers, that number jumps to 41%.
This isn’t surprising considering past research has shown that people who suffered from migraines in early childhood often developed hypothyroidism as an adult. Research has also shown that once hypothyroidism has developed, migraines and headaches become more frequent and severe.Furthermore, other studies have found that as hypothyroidism increases in severity, it may result in even more frequent headaches. If you’re one of the millions of people suffering from migraines, your immediate question may be: “Can the thyroid cause headaches?” While this research shows a strong link between the two conditions, there is no definitive answer as to why they are linked or if one condition causes the other. One of the most notable questions on the topic is: Are people who suffer from migraines are more likely to have thyroid problems, or is it that those people who have thyroid issues are more susceptible to migraines? It is the hope of medical professionals, researchers, and migraine sufferers alike that present and future studies will answer that question, and help develop additional protocols and treatments for those affected. However, if you believe your pain could be caused by a thyroid headache, speaking with a doctor is an important first step. Until a definitive connection between hyperthyroidism/hyperthyroidism and headaches can be established, current thyroid treatments may still be an excellent option. Determining whether or not you have a thyroid condition will help your doctor determine which treatment options may best serve your needs. And if your thyroid is in good health, a headache specialist like the ones at the National Headache Institute can move forward with other, better-suited treatment options.