Is Your Headache a Brain Tumor Symptom?

Knowledge can help prevent you from jumping to conclusions

Woman With Head In Hands
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When a headache gets worse or won't go away, it's natural to wonder whether the headache could be a symptom of something more serious, like a brain tumor.

Indeed, headaches can be a symptom of brain tumors, and those that are truly tumor-related usually have distinct characteristics that separate them from headaches that have other causes.

But it's important to know that brain tumors are not common.

 While studies show that more people are being diagnosed with brain tumors, it still is an uncommon occurrence. Headaches are much more likely to be related to other, less serious conditions like migraines, allergies, or tension-type headaches

What Causes Headaches in People Who Have Brain Tumors?

Brain tumors can cause a headache by directly compressing a variety of structures in the skull, like large arteries and veins, the skull itself, or the cranial nerves that carry pain fibers.

Increased intracranial pressure (ICP) is another potential culprit of headaches in people who have brain tumors. ICP occurs when there is an increased amount of pressure placed on the brain caused by excess fluid, brain swelling, or an abnormal growth (called a tumor). Besides a headache, vomiting may be another symptom of increased intracranial pressure.

What Does a Brain Tumor Headache Feel Like?

Surprisingly, headaches from brain tumors do not generally occur on their own, but rather with neurological symptoms such as:

  • Seizures
  • Changes in vision or hearing
  • A weakness of the arms and legs
  • Mood problems
  • Challenges with speaking (for example, slurred speech)
  • ​​Cognitive decline (for example, memory loss)

It has been generally thought that a brain tumor-related headache is classically a morning or nighttime headache, but research shows that this isn't always the norm.

In fact, this may be more common in children with brain tumors than adults. Regardless, headaches are common in those who have brain tumors, with up to half of sufferers experiencing them.

The pain of a brain tumor headache can be described as dull, aching, or throbbing, and similar to either a migraine or a tension-type headache. It has also been described as being similar to rarer primary headache disorders like a cluster headache or a primary exertional headache.

With time, a headache from a brain tumor usually becomes more frequent and increases in severity. In addition, changes in body position can make them worse, especially when lying down. They can also be worsened by coughing, sneezing, or bearing down for a bowel movement (this is called the Valsalva maneuver). 

These are only typical characteristics of brain tumors, as brain tumors are very complex. It's important to understand that each person may experience different types of headaches based on the size of their tumor, its location, and how quickly or slowly it grows.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask You About a Potential Brain Tumor Headache

When you see your doctor because of frequent headaches, he or she will ask you several questions that are related to your headaches.

It is helpful to keep a symptom journal to clue your doctor in on what may trigger your headaches, what makes them worse, and how often you are getting them. These are all important factors and can easily be forgotten or under or over-estimated during the exam, so try to be as accurate as possible.

Here are some questions your doctor may ask you, and what your answers may reveal:

Do You Normally Get Headaches?

For people who don't normally get headaches and have had recent and new headaches, this may cause your doctor to suspect something more serious. In addition, people who have previously had headaches and whose headaches have changed in intensity or location, or have caused other symptoms, are also a concern to doctors.

Overall, a change in headache pattern or a new, generally severe headache may be a symptom of a brain tumor.

What Medications Are You Using to Relieve Your Headaches?

Be very thorough and honest when your doctor asks about what you are doing to relieve your headaches. Tell him about any over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as ibuprofen or Tylenol (acetaminophen), herbs, or prescription medications that you are taking.

Even if you are taking pain medications that were prescribed for another condition or another person (neither of which is recommended and can be dangerous), it's vital to be honest with your doctor. He is not going to judge, as your physician simply wants to gauge how your headaches react to medications.

Typically, headaches related to brain tumors are not eased by medication. When both OTC and prescription pain relievers are ineffective, it raises a red flag for a doctor that something more serious may be going on.

What Makes Your Headache Better or Worse?

If your headaches worsen or are triggered when you bend over, sneeze, or cough, it's important to let your doctor know. Brain tumor-related headaches are often worsened by these movements, and a specialist will order the appropriate imaging tests and studies such as an MRI or a CT scan to rule out a brain tumor as the cause of your headache. 

Also, if your headache is getting gradually more severe and is waking you or your child up at night or after a daytime nap, this is something else you want to point out to your doctor.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, the vast majority of headaches are not from a brain tumor. If your doctor is suspicious of one or another issue, like a stroke, imaging tests of the brain can rapidly make the diagnosis, so you can move forward with a treatment plan. 

Sources:

Campos S et al. Brain Metastasis From an Unknown Primary, or Primary Brain Tumour? A Diagnostic Dilemma. Curr Oncol. 2009 Jan;16(1):62-6.

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)".Cephalalgia2013;33(9):629-808.

Lay CL, Sun-Edelstein C. (2015). Brain Tumor Headache. In: UpToDate, Swanson JW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA.

Valentinis L et al. Headache Attributed to Intracranial Tumours: a Prospective Cohort Study. 2010 Apr;30(4):389-98.

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