Brain Tumors and Headaches

Author: Courtney Misher, MPH, BS R.T.(T)
Last Reviewed: November 04, 2022

What is a headache?

A headache is a painful feeling in any part of your head. The pain can vary in intensity (mild to severe) and in how it feels (throbbing, sharp, or dull). Headaches can come along with other symptoms such as light sensitivity, nausea, or vomiting.

Why does my brain tumor cause headaches?

Headaches are common in people with brain tumors. The brain itself cannot feel pain. A brain tumor causes a headache by putting pressure on nerves and blood vessels in the brain that can sense pain. This can be due to:

  • A growing tumor.
  • Swelling around the tumor.
  • Buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain.

Headaches can also be caused by brain tumor treatments. These include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery (craniotomy).

How does a headache caused by my brain tumor feel?

The symptoms of a headache related to a brain tumor can be different from person to person.

  • It usually affects both sides of the head, but in some cases, the pain may be on the side of your tumor.
  • These headaches tend to get worse or happen more frequently over time. The pain may be consistent or steady and may not get better after taking pain relievers (like Aspirin, Tylenol, or Advil).
  • They may be worse when you first get up and get a little better after you have been up. May be worse when you cough, exercise, or change position.
  • These headaches may wake you up at night.
  • They may come along with other symptoms such as vomiting, light sensitivity, and/or new or worsening neurologic symptoms.
  • People who had problems with headaches prior to their brain tumor are more likely to have headaches related to their brain tumor.

What can trigger headaches related to my brain tumor?

There are some things that can trigger headaches. These can include:

  • Things in your diet such as caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, aspartame, MSG, and nitrates.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Hormone changes such as during menstruation or ovulation in women.
  • Strong stimulants such as bright or flashing lights, odors, or loud noises.
  • Times of stress.
  • Changes in environment such as weather, altitude, seasons, and sleep patterns.
  • Not getting enough sleep.
  • Smoking cigarettes.

How can I treat my headaches?

There are some things that can help manage or treat your headache pain that is caused by your brain tumor. These include:

  • Talking to your provider about what medications you can take to manage or treat your headaches. Take these medications as directed.
  • Medications such as analgesics (acetaminophen, ibuprofen) and narcotics (oxycodone) can help with the pain. Steroids can reduce swelling in the brain (dexamethasone, methylprednisolone).
  • Keeping a log of information to share with your provider. This should include:
    • When and where the headache occurs. What are you doing when it occurs?
    • How does the pain feel (sharp, dull, etc.)? Rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10.
    • Do you have any other symptoms (nausea, light sensitivity, neurologic symptoms, etc.)?
    • If you take pain medication, rate the pain again 30 minutes after taking the medication.
    • Is there anything that makes the pain better or worse?
  • Review the log with your provider so they can make changes to your medications to manage and treat your symptoms.

When do I need to call my provider?

Headaches are very common if you have a brain tumor, but there are sometimes when you should contact your provider. These include:

  • A headache that is getting worse over time.
  • A headache that comes with a fever, neck pain, or other symptoms of infection or illness.
  • A headache along with new neurologic symptoms such as vision or speech changes, drowsiness, changes in your ability to walk, or seizures.

If you have any questions about your new or worsening headaches or a headache that has changed, call your provider.

Headache. The Brain Tumour Charity. (2022, October 6). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from

McFaline-Figueroa, J. R., & Lee, E. Q. (2018). Brain Tumors. The American journal of medicine, 131(8), 874–882.

Ranjan, S., & Schiff, D. (2018). Headache as complication of cancer. In Cancer Neurology in Clinical Practice (pp. 143-151). Springer, Cham.

Signs & symptoms - learn more about brain tumors: ABTA. American Brain Tumor Association. (2022, March 31). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from

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