How to Know If a Headache Is a Symptom of a Brain Tumor

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

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

But it's important to known that brain tumors are not common. While studies show that more people are being diagnosed with brain tumors, it remains to be an uncommon occurrence.

Chronic headaches are much more likely to be related to other, less serious conditions like migraines, allergies, or common vision problems that require glasses or contact lenses.

What Causes Headaches in People Who Have Brain Tumors?

Increased intracranial pressure (IICP) is a common culprit of headaches in people who have brain tumors. IICP is an increased amount of pressure on the brain that can be caused by excess fluid, brain swelling, or a mass. There is only enough space in the skull to accommodate the brain and a normal amount of fluid—so anything excess, whether it is fluid or tissue, increases the pressure.

Characteristics of Brain Tumor Headaches

Surprisingly, headaches are not normally the initial symptom that a person experiences if he or she has a brain tumor. Other symptoms, like seizures, changes in vision or hearing, weakness of the arms and legs, or cognitive decline are often the first symptoms.

It has been generally thought that a classic characteristic of a brain tumor-related headache was a morning headache, but research shows that this isn't exactly the norm. It can occur, but it isn't as common as previously thought. Headaches, though, are common in those who have brain tumors, with up to half of sufferers experiencing them.

Most people do not suffer from severe, debilitating headaches, although they can be painful enough to rouse someone from sleep. (A headache that rouses you from sleep can also be caused by something other than a brain tumor.)

The pain can be described as dull, aching, or throbbing. Over time, the headaches may become more frequent and increase in severity. Changes in body position can make them worse, especially when lying down. They can also be worsened by coughing or sneezing.

These are only typical characteristics of brain tumors. Brain tumors are very complex, and each person may experience different types of headaches that may or may not reflect these common traits.

Reasons Why Your Doctor May Suspect a Brain Tumor 

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 the headaches, what makes them worse, and how frequently 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.

Your doctor will ask you several questions about your headaches.

Here are some common ones and what your answers may reveal:

  • Do you normally have headaches or have you previously suffered from headaches? People who have previously suffered from headaches or those who are allergy or migraine sufferers generally don't necessarily raise concern for doctors. It is those who don't commonly get headaches and have had recent and new headaches that make doctors suspect something more serious. People who have previously suffered from headaches and whose headaches have changed in intensity or location, or have caused other symptoms are also a concern to doctors. A change in headache pattern can be a symptom of a brain tumor.
  • What medications are you using to relieve the headaches and are they working? Be very thorough and honest when your doctor asks about what you are doing to relieve your headaches. Tell him or her about any over-the-counter (OTC) medication (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen), herbs, or prescription medications that you are taking. Even if you are taking prescription pain medications that were prescribed for another condition or even another person (neither of which is recommended and can be dangerous), it is vital to tell your doctor. He or she is not going to judge. Your physician wants to gauge how your headaches react to medications. Typically, headaches related to brain tumors are not relieved by medication. When both OTC and prescription pain relievers are ineffective, it raises a red flag to a doctor that something more serious may be present.
  • Do your headaches get better or worse with movement? If your headaches worsen or are triggered when you bend over, sneeze, or cough, it is important to let your doctor know. Brain tumor-related headaches are often worsened by these movements, and a specialist may 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 the headache. 
  • Are you experiencing any nausea or vomiting? Nausea and vomiting, along with a headache, can be symptoms of a brain tumor. Nausea and vomiting without a headache, often with change of movement, can also be a symptom, but this is far more likely related to something other than a brain tumor. 

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