What do brain tumor headaches feel like? Find reassurance

Brain tumor or Migraine?

Almost everyone who has ever had a troublesome headache has worried at some point in time that they might have had a brain tumor. So let’s talk about what a brain tumor headache feels like.

Here are some reassuring facts: although up to 70% of people with various brain tumors have a headache at the time of diagnosis, only about 8% of tumor patients have headache as their first and only symptom. Many older sources have described a “classic” brain tumor headache as one that is worse in the morning, and is more likely to be a dull pain, but with nausea and vomiting. (There are other causes of morning headache, though.)

However, neurologist and cancer specialist Dr. Casilda Balmaceda, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, states that there is no typical brain tumor headache.

Symptoms for headaches associated with brain tumors

Nausea and vomiting do not usually show up until the tumor has gotten big enough to put pressure on the brain. This increased pressure phenomenon can also be the reason for morning headaches. However, morning headaches are far more likely to be due to sleep disorders like sleep apnea.

A brain tumor headache can link to the spot where the brain tumor is. So if you always get a headache in the same spot, there is a possibility that it could mean a brain tumor—but it’s not a big chance. If most of your headaches are on one side, but a few are on the other, your headaches are still most likely to be migraines.

Migraine patients who have had the misfortune to later develop a brain tumor report that the headaches due to the tumor are different from their migraine headaches. Do you always get a headache with a brain tumor? No—sometimes you get other symptoms instead, like weakness or a personality change.

Children with brain tumor are more likely to experience headaches than are adults.

Most people have no cause for worry, but it's always best to see a doctor to be sure. A thorough history and a good neurologic examination can help to determine if you need diagnostic imaging studies like an MRI scan.

References: 1. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119263829/abstract

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2022972

by Christina Peterson, M.D.

Updated July 1, 2012