Anemia, when levels of RBCs are low typically due to an iron deficiency, may cause headaches or migraine episodes. There are therapies to manage headaches and options to treat anemia.

Anemia is a condition in which the number or function of red blood cells (RBCs) in a person’s blood is below the normal level. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body.

There are many possible reasons why a person may develop anemia. Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.

This article discusses how anemia may cause headaches or migraine episodes. It also discusses other symptoms of anemia and how to manage headaches caused by the condition.

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There is a connection between anemia and headaches. Headaches are a possible symptom of anemia. A 2022 study estimates that nearly 80% of people with iron deficiency anemia also experience headaches.

Some experts believe that iron is involved in making serotonin, a chemical messenger in the body. People who experience migraine have altered serotonin levels. It is possible that a reduction in serotonin levels due to iron deficiency anemia may make a person more prone to developing headaches.

The connection may also be related to the role of red blood cells in the body. Red blood cells transport oxygen around the body. When red blood cell levels are low, all parts of the body, including the brain, may not get enough oxygen. This may change how the brain functions and bring on headaches or migraine episodes.

A randomized controlled trial from 2020 showed that people with anemia who supplemented with iron reported a significant improvement in their headaches.

Anemia is not the only cause of headaches or migraine episodes. A person should speak with a healthcare professional to ensure they are getting the right care and treatment.

Learn more about anemia.

What does the headache feel like?

The type of headache a person experiences as a result of iron-deficiency anemia can vary. Some people will experience a dull aching sensation throughout their head. They may also feel lightheaded or dizzy.

A migraine episode will feel different. It is usually more severe pain, along with nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound.

There are several possible signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia.

Beyond a headache, other signs and symptoms of anemia include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • a fast or irregular heartbeat
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • skin that is paler than usual

Learn more about iron deficiency anemia.

Studies show that people with iron deficiency anemia have a higher rate of migraine. A study from 2022 showed that 23.3% of people with migraine also had anemia.

Another study compared rates of iron deficiency anemia in people with and without migraine. In the migraine group, 21% of people had iron deficiency. Among the control group, only 10% had iron deficiency.

Another study found a connection between ferritin levels and migraine. Ferritin is a measure of iron stores in the body. In people who were assigned female at birth over the age of 50, those with low ferritin levels were more likely to experience migraine.

Migraine is a medical condition that typically causes pulsing and throbbing head pain, also known as migraine episodes. The pain tends to be more severe than other types of headaches and generally occurs on one side of the head.

Other migraine symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • light sensitivity
  • sound sensitivity
  • vision changes or flashes of light, known as aura

Learn more about migraine.

In the short term, treating a headache caused by anemia will be like treating any other headache or migraine episode.

Treatments include:

  • using medication to reduce pain
  • using hot and cold compresses
  • resting in a dark, quiet room
  • massaging the head

The only way to know for sure if a person has anemia is by having a blood test. If the blood cells in a blood sample appear small and pale, this is generally an indication of iron deficiency anemia.

The treatment for anemia will depend on the cause. There are many possible reasons for iron deficiency anemia, including:

  • low iron intake
  • higher iron needs due to growth, pregnancy, or another health condition
  • iron loss due to bleeding
  • poor absorption of iron due to a gastrointestinal condition, inflammation, or kidney disease

Treatments for anemia include:

  • Dietary changes: A person may focus on getting more iron sources in their diet. Iron sources include meat, chicken, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, and beans.
  • Iron supplements: Oral iron tablets help increase the amount of iron available for the body to use. There are many different types and doses.
  • Blood transfusion: For severe or chronic blood loss, a blood transfusion may be used.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional to get the most effective treatment for both anemia and associated headaches or migraine pain.

Anyone with frequent headaches or other symptoms of anemia may consider contacting their doctor.

The only way to know for sure if a person has anemia is to have bloodwork done, which can check the number, size, and shape of the red blood cells.

A doctor can also rule out any other causes of headaches or migraine pain and create an effective treatment plan.

Anemia is a condition in which the levels of red blood cells are below the normal range. Iron deficiency is the most common reason for anemia. There are many symptoms of anemia, including headaches or migraine episodes.

Treatments for iron deficiency anemia help stabilize iron levels so the body can once again build normal amounts of red blood cells. For some people, this can improve their headaches.

If a person is having frequent headaches, they should undergo bloodwork to check their iron and red blood cell levels.