When headaches can be brain tumors

March 15, 2017 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

We all feel ill from time to time. When we do, our immediate reaction may be to search on Google and self-diagnosis our symptoms. A quick diagnosis on the internet often tells us the worst case scenario. 

Usually our symptoms are not as severe as our Google search makes them sound, but sometimes they can be. Take someone who experiences frequent headaches for example.

First, let’s keep in mind that headaches are extremely common, and there are many different types and causes. 

Headaches that tend to get worse over time, though, can potentially be a symptom of a brain tumor. About half of patients with a brain tumor experience headaches. For these patients, common features of their headaches include:

  • Steady pain that is worse upon waking in the morning and gets better within a few hours
  • Persistent, non-migraine headache
  • May be accompanied by vomiting
  • May or may not be throbbing, depending on the location of the tumor
  • May worsen with coughing, exercise, or a change in body position
  • Does not usually respond to the usual headache remedies
  • May be associated with new neurological problems, such as weakness of the arms and legs
Not all headaches are caused by brain tumors. Headaches are often more likely related to other, less serious conditions that are caused by:
  • Anxiety
  • Glare from a computer screen, the sun or overhead lights
  • Noise, such as repetitive sounds
  • Eating and sleeping patterns
  • Types of medication
  • Physical activity or lack of physical activity
  • Poor posture
  • Change in hormones
  • Food sensitivities

If you notice your headache is associated with fasting, the flu, a sinus infection, or sleep deprivation, get rest and take care of your body. 

For frequent headache sufferers, if your headache is worse with activity or early in the morning, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing these symptoms. 

Also, keep a journal and make note of what triggers your headaches and what makes it worse. This will help your doctor determine the cause of your pain.

Learn more about how your brain works during Brain Awareness Week.

Learn more about neurosciences at Edward-Elmhurst Health.


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