Does Liver Disease Cause Headaches

You may think that your liver has nothing to do with your brain function. But somehow problems affecting the liver will also eventually affect what you feel inside your head. For examples, liver disease can cause confusion, memory loss, appetite loss, and difficulty concentrating. Does it also cause headaches?

Headaches (brief summary)

Headache is a common medical health complaint that can affect anyone – regardless of gender, race, and age. How it feels like can vary, depending on many factors such as the type of your headache, the underlying cause of the problem, and how severe it is. The pain of headache could be dull, throbbing, or sharp. Also, it can be acute or chronic.

Here are some common types of headache:

  1. Migraine, which is usually characterized by a severe throbbing pain in one side of the head (though not always). Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to noise or light.
  2. Tension headache. Many times it is mild and relieves with a few lifestyle measures. In general, most people describe it as a mild or moderate pain that feels like a band around the head.
  3. Cluster headaches. Though they are not as common as tension headaches, the pain is more severe.

And based on what causes the problem, it can be classified into two main categories; primary and secondary headaches. Primary headache, as the name suggests, is stand-alone condition caused by problems with primary structures in the head such as nerves, muscles, and blood vessels of the head or neck. On the other hand, secondary headache is a condition caused by problems elsewhere in the body that activate the pain-sensitive nerves of the head.

Depending upon the severity of the condition, a few lifestyle measures or home remedies (a short rest and an OTC pain reliever for examples) are often enough to cope with. However, the pain can also become so intense (severe). This may make you might worry, because sometimes severe head pain could be a warning sign and symptom of serious medical conditions such as stroke, life-threatening blood clots, or even a tumor. Luckily, such situations are not common (rare).

Liver disease and headaches – is there a link?

Although headache is very common, it’s not always easy to understand. It can be attributed by lots of things — from mild to serious — making it more difficult to diagnose the exact cause of the problem. Even sometimes the underlying cause is unidentifiable.

Actually, headache is not brain pain since there are no nerves that register pain from your brain tissue and skull. But doctors know that tissues surrounding the brain can signal pain, as can the blood vessels in the neck and head. The pain may also be derived from problems affecting teeth, sinuses, scalp, or joints /muscles of your neck. How about liver disease?

Headache is not specific symptom of liver disease. Nevertheless, sometimes problems affecting the liver may also have a role to cause head pain.

The liver has crucial function to metabolize millions of substances (including the harmful ones) that enter the body. It’s a tough organ that can repair itself when it gets injured. But this self-healing ability is not going without limit. Long term exposure to environmental pollutants, unhealthy dietary factors (excessive use of alcohol for example), being obese, and lack of physical activity are a few things that can impair your liver function, leading to a number of consequences such as chronic liver inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis, or even increased risk of liver cancer.

The link between liver disease and headaches is not fully understood yet. But it seems that changes of blood vessels caused by altered serotonin metabolism are probably one of the answers why a problem in the liver may factor into headaches such as migraine.

Serotonin is metabolized by the liver. It is a messenger molecule for communication between your nerve cells. If it’s not properly metabolized, it may cause unnecessary vascular (blood vessel) changes throughout the body, including narrowing of blood vessels in the head or neck. Poor function of the liver is not able to effectively metabolize serotonin.

Moreover, unhealthy liver may drain the supply of energy to your brain cells and cause excess accumulation of toxic substances. These also make headaches more likely.

What you can do

First off, it’s important to diagnose the exact cause of your headache. Even in people with liver disease, it could be caused by something else.

At early stage of the disease, liver headache is often vogue. But as the liver damage progresses and begins to become advanced, it will usually be accompanied by other symptoms of the disease. The common ones include upper abdominal pain, easier (tendency) to bruise, swelling (buildups of fluid) in the abdomen or legs, jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the eyes or skin caused by elevated bilirubin levels), itchy skin, fatigue, appetite loss, and unintentional weight loss.

Most headaches are not serious (nothing more than a speed bump ‘temporary’ in the course of a busy day). But sometimes prompt medical care is required. Whether or not it is caused by liver problems, see your doctor if you experience some of the following warning signs:

  1. Headache that is unusually severe ‘worst pain ever’.
  2. If it steadily worsens.
  3. If it is severe enough to affect your normal daily activities.
  4. If it gets worse with movement or coughing.
  5. A significant ‘major’ change in pattern of your head pain.
  6. Having tenderness or pain near the temples.
  7. The pain is followed with other unusual symptoms such as severe nausea & vomiting, decreased alertness, confusion, abnormal neurological symptoms (like slurred speech and weakness), high fever, a painful red eye, or changes in mental function /personality.

If your headache does have to do with a liver problem, early treatment is necessary to prevent the problem from worsening. If treated early enough, liver damage is reversible. But when the damage has become advanced, it could be permanent (irreversible).

Pain relievers may help soothe the pain for a while. But the main goal of your treatment is to heal the liver damage (if possible) or prevent it from worsening.

Depending on the severity of your liver damage, some lifestyle measures may help too – here are a few examples:

  1. Cut down on alcohol or avoid it (if possible)! Excessive use of alcohol causes your liver work harder. Alcohol is also one of common allergens that might trigger migraine.
  2. Eating right is always important, especially if something goes awry with your liver. What you eat can play a role to help your liver recovers quickly and prevent the damage from worsening. See also diet with liver disease!
  3. It’s also recommended to stop smoking (if you’re a smoker), have enough sleep, maintain your stress, and exercise regularly!

Furthermore, avoid things that trigger or worsen your head pain. These vary from person to person. The common culprits are as follows:

  1. Foods high in tyramine such as chocolates, aged cheeses, wine, etc.
  2. Foods high in flavor enhancer /additive (MSG).
  3. High nitrate foods (e.g. cured meats, salami, and hot dogs).
  4. Birth control pills that cause extreme hormone fluctuations. The imbalance of particular hormones (such as estrogen and progesterone) may stimulate vascular changes.
  5. Fasting or skipping your meals.
  6. Irregular sleep (changes in your sleep patterns), oversleeping, or lack of sleep.
  7. Overexposure to loud noise, strong odors (perfume), or heat (sunlight).

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