Tumor Headaches vs. Other Types of Headaches
It’s common to dismiss tumor headaches as simple migraines or other types of headaches because first and foremost, the chance that a brain tumor causing a headache is extremely low. In fact, less than 1 in every 1,000 adults and 1 in every 4,000 children who experience headaches actually do have a brain tumor. While the chances of discovering a brain tumor in a headache patient are low, doctors tend to err on the side of caution especially when the symptoms associated with the headache fall under the red flags that may indicate the presence of a brain tumor. In cases when the headache raises these red flags, tests like CT scans and MRIs are performed to see if the patient is indeed experiencing tumor headaches or not.
How Do We Differentiate Tumor Headaches from Normal Headaches?
Headaches don’t necessarily mean a person has a brain tumor, and in the same way, a person with a brain tumor may not experience headaches. The best way to find out for sure is to take note of what the headache feels like, the possible triggers that may have caused it, and the frequency and intensity of each headache episode. This can help doctors diagnose the situation properly and determine whether further tests should be done or not. Often, doctors have a checklist of red flags that serve as guidelines in determining whether a tumor could be causing the headaches.
- The patient already has cancer in other parts of the body. Patients who already have a history of cancer in other parts of the body have the most risk of having the tumor spread to other parts of the body including the brain.
- The patient doesn’t usually get headaches. If the patient isn’t used to getting headaches or the headache is different from the type of headache the patient usually experiences, this may be a sign that something is wrong. There are different types of headaches and a lot of factors that can trigger them, which is why it is important to take note of every aspect of the headache so the doctor can narrow down the list of possible causes for the headaches.
- The headache comes with other symptoms. Similar to other secondary headaches, tumor headaches are often accompanied by other symptoms. If these other symptoms include seizures, nausea, vomiting or dizziness, having a tumor as an underlying cause is a possibility.
- The headaches start when the patient wakes up in the morning. While headaches that wake you up while you sleep are alarming, chances are slim that the ache is caused by a tumor. The same goes with experiencing headaches as the day ends as this is usually a symptom of tension headaches. People who have brain tumors may experience headaches and nausea in the morning, which subside as the day goes on.
- The headaches are progressive. One of the warning signs of a brain tumor is when a patient’s headache starts out mild and infrequent and it quickly progresses into a severe and chronic headache over the course of a few months, weeks or even days.
- Something just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes headaches don’t raise any of the red flags mentioned above, but something doesn’t seem right about the initial diagnosis, so it’s better to check just in case. It’s not being paranoid, it’s being careful. There have been cases where the initial diagnosis is wrong, not because the doctor made a mistake, but because the symptoms led to another more logical conclusion.
Getting the Proper Diagnosis and Treatment
Treatment for a brain tumor and the headaches that come with it is best and most effective when the problem is diagnosed early. If you suspect that the headaches you are experiencing are caused by a tumor, it’s not a good idea to wait for the pain to progress before seeing a doctor. During your checkup, make sure that you answer all the doctor’s questions as best as you can to ensure that there are no red flags overlooked. Preliminary tests may show that there’s nothing wrong with you and that you may just have migraines or tension headaches, but if your instincts tell you differently, it’s alright to get a second opinion from another doctor to make sure that the headaches you are experiencing are not caused by a tumor.
Once the necessary tests have been done and it is established that you indeed have a brain tumor, your doctor will present all the treatment options available for your type of tumor. The treatment plans may include medication to relieve the headaches, chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor, or brain surgery to remove the tumor completely. The course of treatment is different for each type of tumor and in some cases it may be inoperable, making it more difficult to treat. In these cases, surgery may also be an option. It is performed to relieve the pressure in the brain in order to alleviate the headaches and other symptoms it is causing. Painkillers, corticosteroids, diuretics, and anticonvulsants may be prescribed to reduce the pain and swelling in the brain, as well as manage the other symptoms caused by the brain tumor.
Headaches are often harmless and are caused by a number of factors; however in rare cases, it could be the result of a tumor growing in the brain. While headaches caused by brain tumors are rare compared to migraines, tension headaches, and sinus headaches, it’s still better to be on the safe side than be sorry. If you’re having unusual headaches, especially if it falls into the red flag categories for tumor headaches, consult a headache specialist immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.