The pituitary gland is a small gland that sits behind the bridge of the nose, beneath the brain. Tumors around this gland may cause various types of headaches, but they often cause pain in the forehead.
This information comes from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Most pituitary tumors are benign, meaning they are not cancerous. However, if they press on parts of the brain or nerves or produce hormones, they can cause a range of symptoms.
If a tumor prevents blood flow to the pituitary gland, it can also lead to pituitary apoplexy, which causes a sudden, severe type of headache. This is uncommon, but it can be a medical emergency.
Read on to learn more about pituitary tumor headaches, including their location, what they feel like, and other symptoms that may indicate someone has one.
Pituitary tumors do not always cause headaches. If they do, they tend to be around the forehead. They may affect one or both sides of the head, depending on the location of the tumor. Pituitary tumors can also cause facial pain.
However, it is worth noting that there are many other causes of pain in this area of the body.
What does the pain feel like?
Pituitary tumors can cause different types of pain, which may present as dull or aching. However, if tumors press on any nerves, this may cause sharp, throbbing, or stabbing pain that can affect the forehead or eyes or radiate elsewhere on the face.
In cases of pituitary apoplexy, the headache will typically feel sudden and severe and manifest in the front of the head or behind the eyes. People with this complication may also have a stiff neck or sensitivity to light.
If a person has these symptoms, they should seek immediate medical help, as pituitary apoplexy can be serious. Additionally, these symptoms overlap with the symptoms of meningitis, which is also potentially life threatening.
Tumors may cause pain by pressing on surrounding tissues, nerves, or organs. For example, if the tumors grow into the sinus cavity, they may cause pain by placing pressure on tissues or by blocking the sinuses.
The tumors may also press on branches of the trigeminal nerve. This nerve starts behind the ear and fans out across the face. One branch goes to the eyes, another to the nose, and another to the jaw.
In cases of pituitary apoplexy, the pain occurs when tumors block a blood vessel to the pituitary gland or cause a bleed.
That said, a 2021 study states that it is often unclear if the tumor is directly responsible for the pain, as headaches are generally common.
Not all pituitary tumors cause symptoms. When they do, they can be similar for all individuals. However, the symptoms depend on the type of tumor.
There are two broad types of pituitary tumors: nonfunctional and functional. Nonfunctional tumors do not produce hormones, so they only cause symptoms if their growth affects nearby tissues.
In contrast, functional pituitary tumors produce hormones, some of which can affect females and males in different ways. Tumors that can do this include the below.
Prolactin is the hormone that triggers breast milk production in females. In people of all sexes, this hormone can result in infertility, loss of interest in sex, or weakened bones.
In females, high prolactin may also cause:
- unexplained lactation, or galactorrhea
- irregular periods
- no periods
In males, high prolactin may cause:
- breast tissue growth
- erectile dysfunction
This type of tumor can produce luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, or both. In most cases they do not produce enough of these hormones to cause symptoms. However, if they do, they may affect menstruation in females, particularly if they are young.
Symptoms may include early onset of puberty in girls and irregular periods in young adults.
Tumors that damage the pituitary gland
If a tumor becomes large, it can damage the pituitary gland itself. This may lead to low levels of hormones the gland usually makes, such as cortisol, sex hormones, or thyroid hormones. Depending on the hormone that the tumor affects, this may cause:
- feeling cold
- loss of body hair
- low blood pressure
- unexplained weight gain or loss
- less interest in sex
- erectile dysfunction or growth of breast tissue in males
- menstrual changes or early menopause in females
In addition to headaches and hormone-related symptoms, pituitary tumors may also cause:
- vision loss, particularly a loss of peripheral vision
- difficulty moving the eyes, which may cause blurry or double vision
- an impaired sense of smell
- loss of consciousness
Other types of functional pituitary tumors cause further symptoms. They include:
Growth-hormone secreting tumors
High levels of growth hormone (GH) in children can stimulate the growth of the bones, resulting in gigantism. Symptoms include:
- rapid growth
- being very tall for a person’s age
- joint pain
In adults, high GH only affects bones that can continue growing in adulthood, such as the skull, hands, and feet. This can lead to:
- large hands and feet
- changes in facial appearance
- thickened skin
- thickening of the roof of the mouth and tongue
- increased body hair
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- high blood sugar, high blood pressure, or heart disease
- joint pain
This functional tumor causes high levels of steroid hormones, such as cortisol, which causes Cushing’s disease. The symptoms in adults and children are often similar and can include:
- unexplained weight gain
- purple stretch marks on the body
- swelling in the face
- in lighter skin, redness in the face
- increased body hair
- mood swings or depression
- less interest in sex
- changes to menstruation in females
- weakened bones, or osteoporosis
Children with these symptoms may also stop growing.
These tumors produce thyroid-stimulating hormone, which causes an overactive thyroid. The symptoms can include:
- a fast or irregular heartbeat
- shaking or tremors
- unintentional weight loss
- feeling hot or sweating
- difficulty sleeping
- frequent bowel movements
- a lump at the front of the neck due to thyroid swelling
However, these types of tumors are rare.
Pituitary tumor headaches often appear in the front of the head, around the forehead, or behind the eyes. The exact location and type of pain a person experiences will vary depending on how big the tumor is, where it is growing, and the surrounding tissues it affects. However, not everyone with this condition will experience symptoms.
Only a doctor can diagnose pituitary tumors. If a person has any concerns or experiences severe or sudden headaches of any kind, they should speak with a doctor.