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Is It a Migraine or a Brain Tumor?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on February 08, 2022

Migraine headaches can be incredibly painful. Symptoms can be so severe that it’s not uncommon for people who get this type of headache to sometimes wonder whether the migraine pain may be a sign of something serious like a brain tumor. It helps to know the difference.

What Is a Migraine?

Migraines are a type of headache. But as anyone who has had migraines will tell you, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill headaches that might cause minor inconvenience or mild discomfort. Migraines can be so painful that they may stop you from doing basic tasks or your daily routine. The pain from a migraine can be so intense that some people may think they have a serious condition.

A reassuring reality check

When you’re trying to figure out what’s causing your pain, know that doctors say most headaches are just that -- headaches. And while they may hurt a lot, they are not a sign of anything serious or life-threatening most of the time. Also, primary brain tumors -- ones that start in the brain, not those that start somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain – are relatively rare. Fewer than 25,000 people in the U.S. get them each year.

Can a Migraine Cause a Brain Tumor?

If you get bad migraines or you have them often, you may worry that if you don’t already have a brain tumor, the migraines might cause one. But research can help put your mind at ease. There is no evidence migraines cause brain tumors.

Which Migraine Symptoms Might Make You Suspect a Brain Tumor?

Migraine symptoms can vary widely person to person. A few days before, a prodrome happens and can cause mood changes, food cravings, and fluid retention. Many people who have migraines get what is known as an aura about an hour before it hits. You might experience vision changes, tingling, or have a hard time speaking. The migraine itself has symptoms including:

  • Throbbing pain that is often only on one side of the head
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

What Are the Symptoms of a Brain Tumor?

You might be surprised to learn that many brain tumors don’t cause a headache or similar pain at all. That is, not until they have grown. You likely would have noticed other symptoms by then. Symptoms of a brain tumor will often vary depending on where it is, but some of the most common include:

  • Seizures
  • Problems moving or talking
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Difficulty walking or balance issues
  • Vision problems
  • Personality change

When Should You See a Doctor?

You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you experience a “new” or different headache and these symptoms:

  • A strong headache that comes on suddenly
  • Headaches with other symptoms, such as vision problems or weakness in the limbs
  • Symptoms that get worse and negatively affect your daily life
  • Headaches that last for more than 72 hours, with less than 4 hours of no pain
  • Uncontrollable vomiting

These signs may not be an indication of a brain tumor, but another disorder -- such as migraine. Your doctor can plan treatment that can help your symptoms.

Which Tests Will Your Doctor Order?

When you see your doctor about your headaches, they will ask questions about your symptoms, medical history, and any patterns or triggers related to the headache that you may have noticed. They will also perform a basic neurological exam, asking you questions to evaluate your cognitive state and seeing whether you have any trouble with balance, walking, or movement. They will likely also order some tests to figure out if you have a brain tumor, migraine, or other medical issue. Those would mainly be imaging tests such as:

  • MRI
  • CT scan

Your doctor may also order blood tests to look for signs of infection or other conditions such as thyroid disorders that can cause headaches.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine,” “Brain Tumor.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "When Is a Headache a Symptom of a Brain Tumor?"

Cancer.Net: "Brain Tumor: Statistics."

The Journal of Headache and Pain: “Headache, migraine and risk of brain tumors in women: prospective cohort study.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Migraine Aura,” “Migraine Headaches.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Headache: Could It Be a Brain Tumor?”

Cedars Sinai: “Know Your Headaches.”

Stanford Health Care: “Diagnosing Headaches.”

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