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Can Pituitary Tumours cause headaches?

Most people in their lifetime suffer from some kind of headache. Headache is the single most common neurological symptom experienced. A headache could mean a lot of things. For some of us, it could mean that we’ve missed our morning coffee, we need some rest, or maybe even a little workout session. But persistent headaches can be a cause for concern and can be an indicator of a more severe underlying health issue.

Luckily, most headaches, according to WHO, are diagnosed and managed appropriately by our health care professionals. However, an underestimation of headache symptoms could also mean an unseen neurological issue, which might go untreated.

So, that brings us to ask if pituitary tumours cause headaches? There certainly seems to be a strong association between the two. Clinical studies suggest that there is a strong correlation between headaches and pituitary tumors and that headache can arise as a consequence of the tumour.

How common are headaches for Pituitary Tumour patients?

Headache is one of the most commonly seen symptoms of pituitary tumours. A study on “Headache in Patients with Pituitary Lesions” published by the US National Library of Medicine concluded that frequent headaches are common in patients with pituitary tumours. They concluded that between 37% to 70% of pituitary tumour patients suffer from some kind of headaches.

Headache remains one of the most common symptoms reported by pituitary tumour patients. It could be of different forms and people diagnosed with a pituitary tumor can show different symptoms. For instance, both male and female patients of Prolactinomas have contrasting experiences in terms of their headaches. While men tend to have severe headaches due to larger tumour sizes, women more commonly show mild or no headaches at all. This could mean that tumour size is an important determinant of understanding pituitary-tumour related headaches.

A clinical study by the “Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London” on “The clinical characteristics of headache in patients with pituitary tumors” suggests that most of their pituitary tumor patients had suffered from significant headaches and only 12% of them said they had mild headaches. None of their patients recorded a zero incidence of headaches, which strongly suggests that pituitary tumours are associated with headaches.

Science and Symptoms: Common types of headaches in pituitary tumour patients.

Headaches associated with pituitary tumours can occur either by direct effects of the tumour, or due to secondary influences (eg hormonal). A report by the Pituitary Network Association discussed the link between pituitary tumours and headaches. The report theorises that the headache may be due to the compression of the cavernous sinus, a vein that helps to drain blood from the brain and the eyes. Headaches due to the tumour growth in this vein can cause frontal as well as peri-orbital aching (soreness around the eyes). This is one of the most common types of headaches arising in the context of a tumour.

Another more serious type of headache that can occur in the context of a pituitary tumour is one that occurs abruptly and can be quite severe, sometimes associated with deterioration in vision. This is a problem known as  Pituitary Apoplexy, caused by bleeding into the tumour. This kind of headache is sudden and rapid, and in most cases the bleeding will be demonstrated on a MRI or CT scan. This often requires emergency treatment to protect visual function.

Headaches associated with Pituitary Tumours

Patients with a pituitary tumour have a higher chance of suffering from some kind of headaches. Almost 72% of patients diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma complain of periodic or prolonged headaches. A study conducted by Neuroendocrinological Department of General Hospital of Fortaleza based out of Brazil concluded that headache remains a common symptom for pituitary tumour patients. They also discussed that there is a higher prevalence of headaches in patients with prolactinomas when compared to other functioning (ie hormone-producing) pituitary adenomas. However the same could not be concluded for the “Growth-Hormone” type of pituitary tumors.

Neuroradiological assessments suggest that people with small tumours can also complain of periodic severe headaches. Most clinical research suggests that almost all pituitary tumour patients suffer from some kind of headache, but it is hard to draw strong conclusions given the high prevalence of headaches in the normal population.

When to visit a doctor for your headache?

For most people, mild headaches are a normal part of life and don’t indicate any serious health issues. However, if you suffer from persistent headaches that last as long as 48 hours or more, you should consult your general practitioner. It will be unlikely that you have a pituitary tumour, or any other type of brain tumour. Nevertheless, we would suggest a check-up if your headaches are prolonged or occurring regularly. In the rare case that a person’s headache is due to an underlying pituitary tumour, they will need to be referred to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment.