When you have a headache that seems a little more painful than usual and feels different than your typical tension headache or migraine, you may wonder if it’s a sign of something serious. You may even wonder if you have a brain tumor.
But keep in mind that most headaches aren’t due to brain tumors. In fact, fewer than 90,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a brain tumor annually.
The majority of brain tumors actually start somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. These are known as metastatic brain tumors. A tumor that forms in the brain is called a primary brain tumor.
So, most headaches aren’t cause for concern. However, if a brain tumor is present, a headache is the most common symptom.
Understanding the differences between a standard headache and what could be a brain tumor headache can provide a little peace of mind.
However, it’s wise to talk to your doctor whenever you have a new concern, like headaches and accompanying symptoms. In many cases, it’s the presence of other symptoms that can help you and your doctor determine the seriousness of your situation.
In its early stages, a brain tumor may have no noticeable symptoms. It’s only when it grows large enough to put pressure on the brain or nerves in the brain that it can start to cause headaches.
The nature of a brain tumor headache is different from a tension or migraine headache in some noticeable ways.
For example, waking up frequently with a headache can be a sign of a brain tumor. Keep in mind, however, that other conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea or a hangover, can also cause morning headaches.
But if you start getting frequent headaches, different kinds of headaches, or if the headaches change in severity, take note. These may indicate a brain tumor is present.
Likewise, if you’re not a person who usually gets headaches, but you begin experiencing frequent, painful headaches, see a doctor soon.
Other headache symptoms associated with brain tumors may include:
- headaches that wake you up at night
- headache pain that changes as you change positions
- headache pain that doesn’t respond to standard pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil)
- headaches that last for days or weeks at a time
Because the pain can be quite intense, brain tumor headaches are sometimes confused with migraines. However, a migraine attack can also trigger nausea and extreme sensitivity to light. Brain tumor headaches are usually accompanied by other signs.
If a headache is your only symptom, it’s less likely to be caused by a brain tumor than if you’re experiencing other serious health issues. Some of the more common accompanying symptoms of a brain tumor include:
- unexplained weight loss
- double vision, blurred vision, or a loss of vision
- increased pressure felt in the back of the head
- dizziness and a loss of balance
- sudden inability to speak
- hearing loss
- weakness or numbness that gradually worsens on one side of the body
- uncharacteristic moodiness and anger
Some of these symptoms may indicate a stroke, which isn’t caused by a brain tumor. Rather, a stroke is the interruption of blood flow to or within a blood vessel in the brain.
But whether the symptoms are those of a stroke or brain tumor, consult your doctor if your condition worsens from a mild headache into something else.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer elsewhere in your body and you start to experience strong headaches, tell your doctor. The cancer may have spread to your brain. Be ready to describe all your symptoms in detail. The nature of your headaches will help your physician make a better treatment plan.
If you have no cancer history, see your doctor or a neurologist if a headache lasts for several days or weeks with little or no relief.
A headache that continues to worsen with no response to traditional pain treatment should also be evaluated. Weight loss, muscle numbness, and sensory changes (vision or hearing loss) that accompany a headache should be checked promptly, too.
The right treatment for a brain tumor depends on its size and location, as well as its type.
There are more than 120 kinds of brain and nervous system tumors. They differ in whether their cells are cancerous or benign (noncancerous), where the cells originated from, how aggressive the tumor cells are, and many other criteria.
Your age and general health will also determine your treatment if you receive a brain cancer diagnosis.
Treatments for brain tumors include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor. New advances in technology and surgical techniques allow surgeons to reach the brain through tiny incisions and specialized instruments that don’t require a major incision that can take a long time to heal.
- Radiation treatment, which uses external beams of X-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink the tumor. Radiation can also be administered by implanting radioactive material directly in the brain for a short time.
- Chemotherapy, which can be especially challenging for brain tumors. That’s because there’s a blood-brain barrier that protects brain tissue from the bloodstream. Researchers are working on chemotherapy medications that can cross the blood-brain barrier safely and effectively to destroy the tumor.
If no aggressive cancer treatment is done, your doctor may try to manage your brain tumor headache symptoms with steroids to reduce inflammation and swelling, thereby easing pressure on the nerves. If seizures are a problem, your doctor may prescribe anti-seizure or anti-epileptic drugs.
Though some symptoms may come and go, a brain tumor won’t disappear on its own. The sooner a tumor is diagnosed and treatment begins, the better the chances of a positive outcome. And even if your doctor finds that you don’t have a brain tumor, the peace of mind will be quite comforting.
A benign tumor can also cause painful headaches and may require surgery to remove it, but keep in mind that not all brain tumors are cancerous.
The most important thing to remember is to pay attention to your symptoms and when they start to expand beyond the usual tension headache discomfort.