Headache is the most common symptom of brain tumors. Although the brain itself feels no pain, other structures including blood vessels, the covering of the brain, and nerves in the head produce pain in response to pressure or displacement caused by a tumor. Brain tumors can occur at any age and may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Headaches associated with brain tumors cause specific symptoms that help distinguish them from other types of headaches.
Early Morning Pain
Brain tumor-induced headaches are typically worst in the morning just after awakening. The pain may wake you up. The cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain accumulates in the head when you are lying down. This increases pressure on the brain along with increased pressure from the growing tumor causing early morning headache pain. Headaches associated with brain tumors characteristically ease as the day wears on.
Head Pain Relieved by Vomiting
Headaches caused by a brain tumor are commonly accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Headache pain that is relieved by vomiting is a typical symptom of brain tumor.
Head Pain Worsened by Straining
Straining commonly aggravates the head pain caused by a brain tumor. Coughing, sneezing, heavy lifting, and straining to have a bowel movement are typical triggers for increased head pain.
Head Pain Affected by Position
Positions that put the head low to the ground can aggravate head pain caused by a brain tumor. Bending or leaning over and stooping commonly increase headache pain because more cerebrospinal fluid flows into the head in these positions, causing increased pressure on the brain. Resuming an upright position typically relieves the increased level of head pain.
Progressively Worsening Head Pain
The pattern of headache pain can give clues to the underlying cause. Headaches associated with brain tumors get progressively worse over time as the tumor grows and causes ever-increasing pressure within the skull.
Nonthrobbing Head Pain
Unlike many other forms of headache, the pain of a brain-tumor associated headache typically does not throb, because it is not caused by blood vessel spasms. Brain tumor headaches are caused by increased pressure on the brain due to the growing tumor and physical displacement of brain structures as the tumor pushes on them. Headaches caused by brain tumors typically present with dull, constant, aching pain. The pain is often located on the same side of the head as the tumor, although this is not always the case.
Head Pain Not Relieved by Over-The-Counter Pain Medications
Brain tumor-associated headaches are usually not relieved by over-the-counter pain medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. This is in contrast to common types of headaches, which often resolve with these pain relievers.
- National Cancer Institute: What You Need to Know About Brain Tumors
- National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Secondary Headache Disorders
- “Clinical Oncology, Third Edition”; Martin D. Abeloff, M.D., et al, Editors; 2004
- National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors, Symptoms
- National Cancer Institute: General Information about Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors