Headaches are very common and are usually not a sign that something is more serious. Lack of sleep, loud sounds, brightness and even changing weather conditions can cause headaches that can be treated with rest or over-the counter medicine. This is true for most headaches. However, they can be a sign of a serious underlying condition like a tumor.

Lindsay Lipinski MD, Assistant Professor of Oncology at Roswell Park Comprehensive cancer Center and neurosurgeon, says that many patients with brain tumours experience headaches. These can range from mild to severe, and are often unremitting. “I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of patients at Roswell Park with brain tumors experience headaches when they are diagnosed. They are most often associated with another neurologic issue, such as a seizure, speech problem or other neurological problem that led to the initial diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of brain tumor headaches?

The pain experienced by each patient is different, but headaches caused by brain tumors are usually constant and worse at night or early in the morning. These headaches are often described by patients as dull, “pressure type” headaches. However, some patients may also experience sharp, “stabbing” pain. They can be localized or generalized. Coughing, sneezing, or straining can make them worse. Early in the treatment, a headache caused by a tumour may respond to over-the counter medications. However, it may become resistant to medication with time.

Brain tumors can cause headaches despite the fact that the brain does not contain any pain receptors. The most common is that a brain tumor can increase intracranial pressure, which is the pressure inside the skull. This causes the dura to stretch and cause headaches. The dura contains sensory nerve endings, which can cause pain.

The skull is a sphere that has a certain amount of tissue in it. “Adding more tissue, such as a tumor or clot of blood, increases the pressure within the sphere since the skull cannot expand in order to accommodate it,” explains Dr. Lipinski.

Tumors can also occur in places that block the normal flow cerebrospinal liquid, the fluid that is created in the head and that cushions and coats the brain and spinal chord. Dr. Lipinski says that the increased fluid can increase intracranial pressure.

Some people also think that a tumor’s stretching of blood vessels could be perceived as pain, says Dr. Lipinski. “It is also possible that certain tumors may release inflammatory proteins, (cytokines), that can contribute to headache.”

What are the most common tumors that cause headaches?

The pattern of headaches that a patient experiences does not give doctors much information on the tumor. Some patients with malignant tumours do not experience any headaches, while smaller benign cancers can cause debilitating migraines, and vice versa. Your doctor’s evaluation, along with imaging studies such as a CT scan or MRI, if necessary, will give you much more information.

Brain tumor signs & symptoms

You may also experience other symptoms if you suspect that you have a tumor in the brain.

Learn more

How long should a person wait before they consult a doctor for a headache?

“Remember, the vast majority headaches self-resolve and are not a sign of a serious health condition.” You should consult your doctor if your headaches are different or new, says Dr. Lipinski. “For example, headaches that occur suddenly and are very severe (such as a thunderclap headache) are concerning and need to be evaluated immediately. Headaches that waken you from sleep, worsen in the morning, do not improve after taking over-the-counter medication, worsen with coughing, bending forward or any other neurologic symptoms, should prompt a doctor’s visit.

The same precautions are necessary for those who have had a cancer diagnosis in the past. If you are undergoing cancer treatment or have survived cancer and are experiencing a severe or persistent headache, you should consult your cancer doctor immediately.