Brain Tumor Headache

What Is It?

A brain tumor headache is a headache caused by a tumor growing in the head, either in or around the brain. It is one of many causes of headache but other benign causes of headache are much more common. While brain tumors are relatively rare, a large percentage of patients with a brain tumor do complain of headache, either alone or along with other symptoms of the tumor.

Almost any type of brain tumor can cause headache. Presumably, because injury to the brain itself does not cause pain, the headache is caused by irritation of the membranes surrounding the brain, the meninges (particularly the dura mater) which is highly sensitive. This irritation of the dura cause either be caused by direct involvement by the growing tumor or by pressure effects that stretch the dura due to the tumor mass. Therefore, headache is more common with tumors that are either close to these membranes or which are large enough to cause an increase in pressure in the head.


What Types of Symptoms Are Typical?

A brain tumor headache can be difficult to distinguish from other causes of headache in some cases. They may be sporadic and their character and location can be similar to simple benign tension headaches. A headache is more concerning if it is new and progressive. In other words, if a person who does not typically suffer from headaches often begins having headaches and/or if they occur much more frequently and with greater intensity over time it is more concerning for a brain tumor headache.

Another cause for concern is a new headache in the setting of other neurological symptoms. For example, a new headache along with new seizures, weakness of a part of the body, visual changes or other nervous system symptoms is much more concerning for a brain tumor or other underlying brain disease. Nausea and vomiting is also relatively frequent in patients with some brain tumors, although headache with nausea can also occur with a flu, migraine headaches, subarachnoid hemorrhage and many other causes of headache.

Finally, some patients with larger tumors may notice a pattern to their headaches. When we sleep, we tend to hypoventilate, which means we breath slower and less deeply. When we hypoventilate during sleep the carbon dioxide in our blood increases. This in turn causes the blood vessels in the brain to dilate, which brings more blood into the brain, causing it to swell slightly. Normally, this does not cause any symptoms. But in a patient who already has increased pressure in the head due to a tumor (or hydrocephalus) this increase in blood flow can tip the scales and cause an increasing headache. These patients often complain that their headaches wake them from sleep or is worst in the morning and gets better during the day when they are upright and awake.

Lastly, some tumors in the brain can cause hydrocephalus, a disruption of the normal flow of fluid in and around the brain. This leads to a build up of fluid pressure in the head which in turn can cause headaches.


How Is The Diagnosis Typically Made?

In a patient with concerning headaches with or without other symptoms, an MRI of the brain can help to confirm the presence of a brain tumor or rule it out. Not all patients complaining of headaches will receive an MRI because there are many other causes of headache. However, if the character of the headaches or associated symptoms are concerning for headache, a physician may order an imaging study to attempt to identify a tumor.


What Are Some Common Treatments?

Treatment for a brain tumor headache is no different than other headaches. They are often treated with simple analgesic medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. However, treatment of the underlying tumor may also be warranted. You can read more about various types of brain tumors, their symptoms and treatments in the Brain Tumor section.



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Important Note: This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.

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