Although headaches are a common symptom of brain tumors, the vast majority of headaches have other causes.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 50–75% of adults aged 18–65 years worldwide reported having at least one headache in 2015. The WHO also note that up to 4% of the world’s adult population lives with a chronic headache disorder.
Most headaches do not indicate a brain tumor. Experiencing a headache from time to time is rarely a medical emergency. However, a brain tumor can lead to severe and persistent headaches.
In this article, we discuss the difference between regular headaches and those due to brain tumors. We also cover other signs of brain tumors and when to see a doctor.
About 50% of people with a brain tumor experience headaches, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
However, brain tumors cause a specific type of headache that is different than migraine or tension-type headaches.
Headaches due to a brain tumor have the following characteristics:
- unusually severe or persistent, especially in people with no history of severe or chronic headaches
- more painful or intense in the morning
- wake a person in the middle of the night
- worsen over time
- last for several days or weeks
- worsen when a person coughs or changes position
- occur alongside vomiting
It is vital to keep in mind that other conditions and factors can lead to headaches with similar characteristics.
Brain tumor headaches cause intense pain that people may confuse with migraine or tension-type headaches.
However, brain tumors cause other symptoms in addition to headaches, including:
- loss of appetite
- frequent nausea and vomiting
- unexplained weight loss
- loss of coordination
- difficulty walking
- vision, hearing, or speech problems
- changes in personality or mood
- difficulty concentrating
A tumor occurs when the DNA of a healthy cell changes or mutates in a way that allows the cell to grow rapidly. A brain tumor refers to a mass of abnormal cells that can develop in different areas of the brain.
Most brain tumors form without a known cause. However, certain changes in a cell’s DNA affect the genes that control cellular growth and division.
A person can inherit gene changes that lead to cancer. Genetic changes can also result from long-term exposure to substances that damage DNA, such as tobacco smoke and radiation.
A brain tumor may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Both types of brain tumor may increase the pressure inside the skull, causing headaches, fatigue, and even coma. Without treatment, a brain tumor can lead to long lasting brain damage.
Although headaches are a common symptom of a brain tumor, very few headaches indicate cancer.
A person who has frequent or severe headaches may have a headache disorder, such as migraine or tension headaches.
The International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICD) includes more than 150 distinct types of headache. Some of the most common types include:
Migraine is a condition that researchers predict affects about 1.04 billion people around the world.
Migraine episodes have a range of possible symptoms that can last anywhere from 4 hours to 2 days. These include:
- an intense, throbbing headache
- sensitivity to light and sound
About one-third of people with migraine experience episodes with an “aura.” An aura refers to visual, physical, or speech disturbances that occur before the onset of a migraine episode. Examples of these symptoms include:
- seeing flashing lights, black spots, or zigzag lines
- feeling a tingling sensation or numbness in the face, body, or limbs
- mumbling or slurred speech
Tension headaches result from muscle contractions in the head and neck. Factors that can trigger muscle contractions in these areas include:
- eye strain
- poor posture
- physical or emotional stress
- caffeine or alcohol
Cluster headaches are severe, recurring headaches that cause a burning or stabbing pain around one eye.
These headaches usually develop unexpectedly and last for between 15 minutes and 3 hours.
Other symptoms of a cluster headache include:
- redness or watering of the eye
- a drooping or swollen eyelid
- a runny or congested nose
- sensitivity to light or sound
Headaches occur in daily clusters that can last anywhere from a few days to more than a year. The cause of cluster headaches remains unknown.
A person should see their doctor if they have frequent or severe headaches that affect their daily lives, or if they notice changes in the pattern or intensity of their headaches.
People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience:
- a sudden, severe headache
- unexplained vision, hearing, or speech problems
- weakness or numbness in one side of the body
- changes in personality or behavior
A doctor can help diagnose the underlying cause of severe headaches. They will review a person’s medical history and current symptoms.
In some cases, the doctor may take CT or MRI scans of the person’s brain, as well as checking their vision, hearing, and balance.
If a doctor finds a tumor in the brain or spinal cord, they will collect a tissue sample and send it to a laboratory for analysis. Here, lab technicians will perform tests to determine the type and origin of the tumor.
A doctor will use this information to recommend the best treatment options.
A brain tumor increases the pressure inside the skull, which can lead to inflammation and tissue damage. Severe, persistent headaches are a common symptom of brain tumors. Most headaches, however, are not a sign of a tumor or cancer.
People who notice changes in the frequency or intensity of their headaches may wish to consult a doctor.
Paying attention to other symptoms, such as mood, vision, and energy levels, can help doctors identify the underlying cause.