Brain Tumors and Headaches

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is a headache?

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

Why do brain tumors cause headaches?

Headaches are quite 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 happen due to a growing tumor, swelling occurring around the tumor or a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. 

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

How does a headache caused by a brain tumor feel?

The symptoms of a headache related to a brain tumor can vary greatly from person to person.

  • It usually affects both sides of the head, but in some cases, the pain may be on the side of the tumor.
  • These headaches tend to get worse or happen more frequently over time. The pain may be consistent or steady.
  • May be worse when you first get up and get a little better after you have been up. May be worse with coughing or changes in position.
  • May come along with other symptoms such as vomiting, light sensitivity, 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 a 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.
  • Hormone changes such as during menstruation or ovulation in women.
  • Strong stimulants such as bright or flashing lights, odors, or noise.
  • Times of stress.
  • Changes in environment such as weather, altitude, seasons, and sleep patterns.

How can I treat my headaches?

  • Talk to your provider about what medications you can take to treat your headaches. Take these medications as directed.
  • Medications can include analgesics (acetaminophen, ibuprofen), narcotics (oxycodone), and steroids that reduce swelling in the brain (dexamethasone, methylprednisolone).
  • Remember that taking medication to treat your brain tumor as directed is also important.
  • Keep 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)?
    • If you take pain medication, rate the pain again 30 minutes after 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 improve your symptoms.

When do I need to call my provider?

Headaches are very common in brain tumors, but there are some situations when it is important to contact your provider. These include:

  • Any new or worsening severe headache or a headache that has changed.
  • 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.

References

American Brain Tumor Association: Symptom Management, Headaches. https://www.abta.org/about-brain-tumors/brain-tumor-diagnosis/brain-tumor-signs-symptoms/

The Brain Tumour Charity. Headaches. https://www.thebraintumourcharity.org/brain-tumour-signs-symptoms/adult-brain-tumour-symptoms/headaches/ 

McFaline-Figueroa, J. R., & Lee, E. Q. (2018). Brain tumors. The American journal of medicine131(8), 874-882. 

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

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