Headache or Brain Tumour?

When Should You be Worried?


I see a lot of people who are worried they had a brain tumour, so they get an MRI or CT scan to rule it out.

Headaches are common, and brain tumours are rare, so for most people a headache is just that - a headache.

Incidence of brain cancer per 100,000 of population in Australia

But sometimes a headache is a sign of something nastier. So when should you be worried?

Brain cancer has a very low incidence in those below 40 years of age - less than 5 in 100,000 people. As you age it becomes more common but at it's highest is still less than 30 per 100,000 people.

Of those who do get brain cancer approximately 50% will get headaches. The other 50% have no headaches at all, as the tumour is too small to cause a headache.

Part of the problem is that headaches and migraines that people get without a tumour have a lot of similar features to the ones people get when they have a tumour.

Both can have nausea, vomiting, dizziness and a feeling of "brain fog".

So here is a list of when you should seek more advice from your GP or specialist.

  • if you are over 40 years of age and have a sudden onset of headache for no reason
  • a sudden change in your regular headache or migraine. Many headaches and migraines change slowly over time and that is normal. if the change is sudden then seek some medical advice
  • new headache if you have a history of cancer
  • if the headache gets worse with coughing, sneezing, bending over or lying down
  • new sudden onset of headache that is rapidly getting more frequent or intense

Most worrying are new headache that are accompanied by neurological symptoms such as:

  • seizures
  • changes in vision or hearing
  • weakness of the arms or legs
  • problems with speaking
  • mood changes
  • memory problems and confusion

Remember brain tumours are rare and headaches are common, but if you are worried see your GP to get more information or request a CT or MRI scan.

It's better to be safe than sorry!