When is your headache a symptom of a brain tumor?

Everyone experiences headaches from time to time caused by stress, hormone changes, or dehydration. Usually, a headache can be relieved by an over-the-counter pain reliever or rest.

Approximately 13 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from severe migraines, recurring headaches. Migraines can also have additional symptoms such as vision problems, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to sound and light.

The vast majority of the time, a headache is not an indication of a more serious health condition. But, when your head is pounding it is easy to worry that it might be something more serious, like a brain tumor.

Recognizing brain tumor symptoms

The good news is, a headache, by itself, is rarely caused by a brain tumor. If you have a brain tumor, you commonly have more neurological changes as well, including:

• Changes in vision or swelling of the eye

• Difficulty speaking

• Hearing problems

• Numbness

• Personality changes

• Seizures

• Unexplained weight loss

• Weakness on one side of the body

The most common age range for developing brain tumors in adults is 40 to 60 years old.

Brain tumors vary in type, location, and severity. Some are non-cancerous, but they can have serious, even debilitating effects, depending on where the tumor forms.

Cancerous tumors that start in the brain are far less common than tumors that spread to the brain from cancer in another part of your body.

Imaging equipment to precisely diagnose brain tumors, along with new surgical techniques, have advanced the treatment for brain tumors significantly in the last 10 years. If a brain tumor is too deep in the brain or surgical removal is too high risk, it can be treated using targeted radiation and chemotherapy.

If having a headache is your chief complaint, and you haven’t noticed any changes, you likely have a primary headache or a migraine, tension headache, or cluster headache.

These headaches are not life-threatening and can usually be treated easily at home with medication, diet, and lifestyle changes.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should contact your primary care doctor for an evaluation:

• A change in the severity of your headache

• Blurred vision or vision change

• Increased pressure in the back of your head

• Have active cancer and develop new headaches

Your primary care doctor can evaluate your headaches and order any diagnostic tests they feel are necessary. Headaches can impact your quality of life, but there are many ways you can work with your primary care physician to manage the pain. And just knowing it’s not likely to be a brain tumor should bring you some relief.

Georgios Klironomos, MD, neurosurgeon at UPMC Susquehanna, earned his medical degree from University of Patras, Greece, where he also completed his residency in neurosurgery. He completed fellowship trainings in neuro-oncology, cerebrovascular surgery, and skull base/endoscopic neurosurgery at the University of Toronto and Lenox Hill Hospital, New York. Dr. Klironomos sees patients in Williamsport, Lock Haven, Lewisburg, and Sunbury.


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