One of the most common symptoms of a brain tumor is headache. Of course, most headaches aren't caused by tumors. "The percentage is really small," said Michael Schulder, MD, vice chair of neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. Still, it's important not to ignore symptoms.
Pressure in the Head and Brain Tumors
Although not all brain tumors cause headaches, nearly half of people who've had a brain tumor report that they got headaches, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. Tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign), and they can occur almost anywhere in the brain, the association explains.
Symptoms of a brain tumor differ depending on the location of the tumor, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). Headaches and other feelings of increased pressure in the skull, called increased intracranial pressure, can be due to a tumor pressing on nerves or tissue or a backup of fluid around the brain.
Here are red flags that should prompt you to see your doctor:
- Early morning pain. The pain from a headache caused by a tumor is often worse in the morning and can wake you up, says Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
- Head pain with vomiting. Nausea of vomiting can accompany headaches that result from a brain tumor., says the AANS.
- Head pain worsened by straining. Headaches in people with brain tumors can feel worse with coughing or exercise, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
- Head pain affected by position. The headache can be worse when lying down, Dana-Farber observes.
- Progressively worsening head pain. Headaches that are new or worsening can be a tip-off, especially in someone who usually doesn't get headaches, Dana-Farber adds.
- Steady and persistent pain. Tumor-related headaches may or may not be accompanied by throbbing pain, says the American Brain Tumor Association, It really depends on the tumor's location.
- Common painkillers don't help. Here's another sign that differentiates headaches caused by brain tumors from run-of-the-mill headaches: They aren't quelled by common painkillers like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), the association points out.
Know About Other Warning Signs
Often headaches due to brain tumors are accompanied by other neurological symptoms, such as numbness or tingling, vision problems, weakness or paralysis, slurred speech or difficulty understanding speech, says AANS. Any of these symptoms requires immediate medical attention.
Also, you should get medical help right away if a severe headache occurs along with certain other symptoms. Fever, rash, a stiff neck, and confusion, among other changes, may be signs of a severe infection, like meningitis, according to the Meningitis Research Foundation.
Read more: 8 Surprising Things Giving You a Headache
Dr. Schulder, who's also director of the Brain Tumor Center at Northwell Health's Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Manhasset, N.Y., said that brain tumors are much easier to diagnose today than they used to be. "If your headache really persists and doesn't respond to simple remedies, you should get an MRI of the brain," he said.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Brain Tumor Association: "Headaches"
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Brain Tumors"
- Meningitis Research Foundation: "Symptom Checker"
- American Brain Tumor Association: "Brain Tumor Education: What Is a Brain Tumor?"
- American Brain Tumor Association: "Brain Tumor Signs and Symptoms"
- Dana-Farber cancer Institute: "What Are the Most Common Brain Tumor Symptoms?"