Warning Signs Your Headache Is Actually A Brain Tumor

All of us get headaches. Sometimes, it's because we had one too many beers the night before, forgot to hydrate, and went straight to bed. Other times, it's work stress or dehydration. Menstrual cycles, lack of sleep, fatigue, the weather, dental issues, eye problems, noise, diet, and even medications can cause headaches. 

But have you ever had a headache that was so bad you thought it was a warning sign of something more serious? More specifically, a tumor? Turns out, although headaches are a common symptom of brain tumors, the chances that your headache is a tumor are quite rare. 

"A brain tumor is not going to present with one single headache that lasts for a couple of hours and never comes back. Also, many people suffer from primary headache disorders where they experience frequent headaches," explained a neuro-oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Lauren Schaff. So while your mind might turn toward the possibility of a tumor during an intense headache, it's more likely that you're experiencing a migraine, stress headache, or even just having a hangover. But this doesn't mean all headaches are innocent. In fact, mild to severe unrelenting headaches can be a sign of a brain tumor, especially when the headache is new and different, progressing in severity, isn't responding to painkillers, and is accompanied by other brain tumor symptoms. When should you be worried about a brain tumor? 

Your headache itself could give you some clues

Although some of these might overlap with a hangover or stress headache, there are a few tell-tale signs your headache is more serious than you think. Is your headache worse when you lie down or when you wake up in the morning? Is it unrelenting and does it keep coming back stronger? Does it hurt more when you strain, cough, shout, or bend over? Is the pain so severe that it wakes you up at night? All of these could be good reasons to go and get yourself checked by your doctor. 

A brain tumor headache can vary from a throbbing dull ache to something more sharp and stabbing. The location of the tumor could dictate where the pain is. For example, if it's in the front, it could feel like eye or sinus pain. 

There are different reasons why a tumor can cause pain. The brain itself can't feel pain so an ache related to a tumor is often a result of it having grown large enough to put stress on other nerves and vessels. A buildup of pressure, because the tumor is obstructing the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) inside the brain, could also be the culprit. "It also is possible that certain tumors release inflammatory proteins (cytokines) that may contribute to headache," shared Dr. Lindsay Lipinski, an assistant professor of oncology and a neurosurgeon at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Brain tumors don't typically manifest as just headaches as we mentioned before so there are other warning signs you can watch out for too. 

Brain tumor warning signs that aren't a headache

A brain tumor, defined as the abnormal growth of cells in and around the brain, can change the functions of the surrounding tissue. This means you are likely going to experience neurological symptoms.  

Speech difficulties; cognitive changes to do with memory, personality, or thinking; seizures; muscle weakness and numbness; difficulty with walking or balance; vision problems; nausea; and vomiting can all be signs of a brain tumor. You should seek medical attention if your headache is accompanied by any of these symptoms. Even if a brain tumor is not the reason, unrelenting headaches can be a sign of something more serious like sleep apnea, chronic stress, or acute sinusitis. 

The important thing to remember is, very often, the first sign of a headache, even if it's intense, could be tackled by going through a list of other things that could be causing your headache. Try and think of any direct causes that might be lurking right under your nose, failing which, you can always call your GP for a consultation. Brain tumors are assessed with a combination of a physical exam, neurological exam, MRI, and biopsy. Sometimes, you have to go with your gut feeling too. If you're worried about your headaches and they're becoming a cause of stress or lack of sleep, the vicious cycle of headache-inducing habits can continue. Seeing a healthcare provider about it could be a way to lay your fears to rest.