- Symptoms & Signs
- 2 Types of Tumors
- Do They Cause Headaches?
- Malignant vs. Benign Tumors
- When to Seek Help
What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?
The symptoms of a tumor depend on how big it is and where it is in the brain. Some slow-growing tumors may not cause any symptoms at first. Eventually, the tumor may put pressure on the brain, which may cause the signs and symptoms below:
- Severe, persistent headaches that may not be related to an existing illness such as migraine is considered a common finding in patients with a brain tumor. Pain may be worse in the mornings and may be associated with nausea or vomiting. Headaches due to a brain tumor usually worsen with coughing, exercising, or changing position. These types of headaches may not be relieved with over-the-counter medications.
- Another common scenario in which a brain tumor is first detected involves a person who is otherwise healthy having a sudden onset of seizures or fits.
Other common signs and symptoms include the following:
- Irritability, drowsiness, apathy, or forgetfulness
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
- Partial loss of vision or hearing
- Hallucinations, depression, or mood swings
- Personality changes, including abnormal and uncharacteristic behavior
- Changes in intellect or memory problems
- Uncoordinated movements, unsteadiness, or weakness on one side of the body
- Speech difficulties
- Loss of sense of smell
- Warning signs of brain tumor symptoms in women include nipple discharge, excessive body hair, and lack of menstruation apart from the above symptoms
Any of these symptoms can occur alone or in combination.
What is a brain tumor?
Uncontrolled and abnormal cell growth in the brain is called a brain tumor, which is divided into two types:
- Primary: If any brain cells grow and multiply abnormally to cause a brain tumor, this is called a primary tumor.
- Secondary: If abnormal cells have spread to the brain from another part of the body, this is called a secondary tumor. Secondary or metastatic brain tumors are the most common type of brain tumor and they usually spread via the bloodstream. Cancers of the breast, lungs, kidneys, and skin are the ones that most commonly spread to the brain.
What are the common causes of a brain tumor?
The causes of brain tumors are not yet clearly known; however, there are common risk factors or triggers that may cause a brain tumor:
- Being overweight or obese increases the risk of certain types of brain tumors.
- An unhealthy lifestyle including smoking and excessive alcohol consumption may trigger abnormal cell growth.
- The risk of getting brain tumors becomes higher with increasing age.
- Repeated exposure to radiation through ionizing radiation, X-rays, and computed tomography (CT) scans, power lines, nuclear plants, mobile phones, and cell phone towers may trigger tumors.
- Exposure to certain harmful chemicals may trigger a brain tumor. Examples include diesel exhaust, coal tar volatiles, tobacco smoke, arsenic compounds, cadmium compounds, nickel compounds, and more.
- People who have had cancer such as leukemia as a child have a higher risk of brain tumors as an adult. Adults who have had cancer also may have a chance of getting brain tumors, but further research is needed to confirm this finding.
- In some rare cases, brain tumors may be genetically inherited. If a lot of people in a family have had brain tumors, an individual may be at an increased risk of the condition.
Do brain tumors cause pain in the back of the head?
If a brain tumor grows large enough to press on nerves or blood vessels, it can cause pain in the back of the head. However, headaches alone rarely indicate a brain tumor.
What does your head feel like if you have a brain tumor?
Headaches associated with brain tumors have specific characteristics:
- Cause you to wake up at night
- It may appear in the morning when you wake up.
- Pain changes when you change positions.
- Pain does not respond to OTC pain relievers.
- Worsens with coughing, sneezing, or straining
- May dull or sharp or stabbing
- Generalized or localized to a specific area
- May last for days or weeks
Morning headaches, however, can also be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea. A persistent or severe headache followed by light sensitivity, nausea, or vomiting may indicate migraine headaches or tension headaches.
It is always essential to note the onset, pattern, and characteristics of your headache. If your headache is severe, persistent, and has the characteristics and accompanying symptoms listed above, talk to your doctor.
Are brain tumors that cause headaches typically malignant or benign?
Headaches associated with malignant or benign tumors can vary. In some cases, a malignant brain tumor may cause no symptoms, while a benign brain tumor can cause debilitating headaches.
Therefore, it's important to be diagnosed by a doctor, who will typically recommend a CT or MRI scan to identify the type of tumor present.
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What are the treatment options for a brain tumor?
Treatment for a brain tumor may be customized according to the stage of the tumor and patient needs. Surgery is usually the first line of treatment for brain tumors.
One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat cancer or help relieve symptoms.
- Craniotomy: The most common surgery for brain tumors is a craniotomy, which involves opening the skull and removing the tumor.
- Surgery using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): When a brain tumor is in a challenging location, neurosurgeons may use this innovative open MRI system that allows them to view the tumor during surgery. This helps them remove as much of the tumor as possible without damaging other parts of the brain.
- Radiation therapy and chemotherapy: These may be able to stop or slow the growth of brain tumors that cannot be removed with surgery. Chemotherapy alone may be ineffective in treating brain tumors.
- Proton therapy: This delivers high radiation doses directly to the brain tumor site with no damage to nearby healthy tissues. It may be used to treat tumors in very sensitive areas, including in the base of the skull and along the spine.
- Laser interstitial thermal therapy: This is performed by implanting a laser catheter into the tumor and heating it to temperatures high enough to kill the tumor.
When to see a doctor about a headache
Most headaches should resolve on their own or with the help of a pain reliever. If your headache lasts longer than 7 days and doesn't respond to painkillers, it could indicate a serious medical condition
If you have been diagnosed with cancer or have a history of cancer and start to notice headaches, consult your doctor.
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Medscape Medical Reference
Begley, M. "When Is a Headache a Symptom of a Brain Tumor?" Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. <https://www.mskcc.org/news/when-headache-symptom-brain-tumor>.
"What Do Brain Tumor Headaches Feel Like?" Roswell Park. <https://www.roswellpark.org/cancertalk/202005/what-do-brain-tumor-headaches-feel>.
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