Brain tumour symptoms: Headaches

Around 50% of people who do have a brain tumour had headaches as one of the complaints they went to the doctor with, and up to 60% will develop headaches at some time.

Do brain tumours cause headaches?

Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of a brain tumour, but they are also a common in healthy people, and can be due to many everyday causes.

The headaches are not caused directly by the tumour itself, as the brain has no pain receptors, but by a build-up of pressure on pain-sensitive blood vessels and nerves within the brain.

The build-up of pressure can be due to the tumour pressing on these vessels/nerves or by the tumour blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within the brain.

Headaches are rarely the only symptom of a brain tumour.

Doctors do NOT generally worry if your headache is:

  • Occasional
  • Mild
  • Doesn't last long
  • Has an identifiable cause, such as a hangover, lack of sleep, flu-like illness, sinus infection or if you have been 'fasting' (not eating) or overusing medication.

However, people often worry whether their headache is due to something more serious, such as a brain tumour, particularly if they have frequent or severe headaches causing a lot of pain.

It is important to remember that brain tumours are rare, so it is unlikely that your headache is due to a brain tumour, particularly if it is your only symptom.

Any time you are worried, you can always speak to your doctor, who can undertake a neurological examination. This involves testing your vision, hearing, balance, reflexes, arm and leg strength, and coordination. If this examination does not show anything outside the normal range and you have no other symptoms, you are unlikely to have a brain tumour.

What kind of headaches do brain tumours cause?

Headaches associated with brain tumours (tumors) are usually:

  • Worse in the morning (you may wake with one)
  • Aggravated by straining, coughing, shouting or bending over - their intensity and pain may reduce when you are stood upright and the build-up of CSF begins to drain.
  • Not managed by pain killers

What do brain tumour headaches feel like?

Headaches associated with brain tumours:

  • Can be throbbing or a dull ache, depending on where they are in the brain
  • Occur intermittently starting gradually, but fading over a few hours
  • Tend to get worse over time
  • Can resemble common migraine or tension-type headaches.

Other signs and symptoms of a brain tumour

Other features of headaches have been identified as "red flags," which may suggest a brain tumour. These include:

  • A change in previous headache pattern
  • If your headaches are associated with:
    • Prolonged/repeated vomiting
    • Any new muscle weakness, sensory symptoms (e.g. numbness or speech difficulties), or visual symptoms, especially on one side of the body
    • A change in memory, personality, or thinking
    • Seizures (fits) – this does not have to be a full convulsive seizure, but could be a twitching of the hand, arm or leg, or an 'absence'.

It is important to remember that all these symptoms can frequently occur in harmless headaches.

Call 999 or go to A&E at your hospital if:

  • The headache is accompanied by a fever or stiff neck.
  • The headache is the highest degree of pain on the pain scale.

This does not mean it is a brain tumour, but it could be another serious complaint that needs immediate treatment.
Call your doctor, NHS 111 or Out-of-Hours Service if you are not sure what to do.

For signs and symptoms to be aware of in children of different ages, including persistent or recurring headaches, visit our HeadSmart website.

How do I cope with brain tumour headaches?

Below are some suggestions to help manage and treat headache pain that people with brain tumours can experience:

  • Take the medication prescribed by your doctor
    (your doctor may have prescribed steroids – these can help by reducing swelling in the brain, so lowering the pressure and relieving the headache)
  • Tell your doctor straight away if the medication stops working or becomes less effective
  • Keep a headache diary

Symptoms can change over time. Be sure to tell any your doctor or nurse as soon as possible about any new symptoms or changes in existing symptoms.

Keeping a headache diary

In your headache diary, as well as when you have headaches (days & time), it can be useful to record the following for each headache:

  • What does the pain feel like? e.g. Sharp, Stabbing, Dull, Pounding, Achy, Tingling
  • Where is the pain located?
  • Does it move around or stay in one place?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable, how would you score the pain?
  • How long did the headache last?
  • Did it come and go, or was it there all the time?
  • Was it accompanied by nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, any other symptoms?
  • Did it seem to happen in relation to something else? (e.g. eating, standing up suddenly, exercising)
  • Did pain medicine help? If so, how much?
  • Was there anything else that made the pain better or worse?

Other types of headaches

Other types of headaches include:

  • Tension headaches
  • Migraine headaches
  • Rebound headaches
  • Cluster headaches
  • Sinus headaches
  • Headaches due to flu/fever/PMS
  • Temporal arteritis

For more information about these and other headache types, see the National Headache Foundation's Complete Headache Chart.

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