Just Another Headache? Or Something More Serious?

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In the vast majority of cases, the causes of headaches are not serious — but sometimes a headache can signal a serious health problem like a brain tumour. Here, 5 red flags you need to know about

Modern life can be such a headache.

In fact, headaches are so common that the World Health Organization says that in developed countries tension headaches affect two-thirds of men and over 80 per cent of women. And one in 20 adults experience a headache every day or nearly every day!

Stress is a big culprit for our aching heads, but they can be caused by anything from a sinus infection and sleep disorder to dehydration, depression and the flu. And while in the vast majority of cases, the causes of headaches are not serious, a headache can also signal something far less benign — like a brain tumour or another serious health problem.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time, a headache isn’t cancer,” Dr. Gene Barnett, director of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center at the Cleveland Clinic, told CNN. “It’s a stress headache or a migraine or sinusitis or something else benign.”

Yet for some people a headache is the initial symptom of a brain tumour, experts say. So how to tell the difference between a typical headache and something more serious?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to tell, and about half of the people with brain tumours don’t have headaches at all, according to Barnett. Still, there are some red flags that could signal that your headache is, in fact, a brain tumour.

Headache or brain tumour?

While these red flags could indicate atumour, it’s important to keep a few points in mind, experts say: first of all, your headache could fall into these categories and you could not have a tumour, and secondly, you could still have a tumour and not experience any of these symptoms. Symptoms are different for different people, and diagnosis usually involves several steps, including a neurological examination, brain scans and/or a biopsy.

With that caveat, here are 5 red flags to watch for.

Headaches are more severe in the morning. Experts say that when someone has a brain tumour, headaches typically begin in the morning, and at times, can be so severe that they wake you up. This kind of headache tends to ease up as the day goes on. By contrast, headaches that come on later in the day, and worsen into the evening, are often associated with the stresses and strains of everyday living.

Headaches accompanied by other symptoms. Typical ‘brain tumour headaches’ are usually accompanied by other symptoms such as vision problems, dizziness, nausea or vomiting (which is, again, usually most severe in the morning). Other warning signs are difficulty speaking, confusion, memory loss, or personality changes. Headaches can also be accompanied by more obvious symptoms of a serious problem such as weakness or paralysis in one part or side of the body and seizures or convulsions.

A new or different kind of headache. As with other conditions, if you notice a change in your body, it’s a good idea to pay attention. If you don’t normally have headaches, or are experiencing a different type of headache than usual, this could be a sign that something is wrong. In particular, watch for headaches that worsen with coughing, exercise, sex, or with a change in position such as bending or kneeling. If your headache doesn’t respond in the same way to your usual remedies, this could also be a red flag.

Headaches that worsen over time. Do your headaches feel like they’re getting more persistent or severe over a period of days, weeks, or months? Do they begin to interfere with work, school and home life? If you’re concerned about the frequency or severity of your headaches, you may want to start a headache journal or diary to help you track your symptoms.

Something seems off or not right. Intuition is a valuable tool when looking after your health and the health of your loved ones. If your inner voice tells you something is wrong, listen to it… and consult with your doctor.

NEXT: Other Symptoms to Watch For

Other symptoms to watch for

While these signs may not point to a brain tumour, experts say you should also see for your physician for a headache when:

– Your headaches come on quickly and are severe.

– You have headaches that began after an injury to the head, or other trauma.

– Your headaches are accompanied by tingling, numbness, pain surrounding the ear or eye, or stiffness in the neck.

Sources: CNN; Medline Plus; The American Brain Tumor Association; National Brain Tumor Society; National Headache Foundation; WHO; HealthDay; Headache Network Canada

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