Updated 17 November 2017

Does a headache mean I have a brain tumour?

Whether you wake up with a headache or suddenly develop an excruciating pain behind the eyes, your first thought might be that it's a brain tumour. An expert weighs in and gives us some reassuring information.

There are times when you know exactly what caused your headache – a hangover, stress or even lack of sleep. And then there are other times when you can only guess at the cause.

But no matter what type of headache you have, it’s usually not caused by any life-threatening condition.

Finding the cause

People often assume that a recurring headache is an indication of something sinister like a brain tumour or impending stroke, but Dr Elliot Shevel of The Headache Clinic has reassuring news.

He says that although a headache can be triggered by different things in different people, the pain usually originates in one (or both) of two structures – either the muscles of the jaws and neck, or from the tiny arteries outside the skull just under the skin.  

“Arterial pain and muscle pain are the most common causes of headaches,” explains Dr Shevel. “But it’s important to first be sure that it’s not the brain causing the pain [even though it may feel as though it is]. For this reason, a neurological examination is done first to rule out serious conditions such as brain tumours or meningitis."

He continues, “Once we are certain that there is no neurological condition causing the pain, we test the structures outside the skull to determine whether it's muscular or arterial or both.”

Once the cause has been identified, Dr Shevel and his team can find the most suitable treatment.

In patients with mainly muscle pain, Dr Shevel prescribes a very comfortable appliance that is worn in the palate, and which is highly effective in relaxing the muscles of the jaws and neck. The painful arteries are treated with a minimally invasive procedure with excellent results.

Headache triggers

People often say that something has triggered their headache or migraine – a food or smell – but Dr Shevel says a trigger is not necessarily the underlying problem. Only when there is an underlying muscle or artery problem do the triggers cause a headache.

Chronic headaches

It’s normal to get the occasional headache – a stressful day at the office, your pillow is too flat, you’re dehydrated or you drank too much the night before. Regular headaches can, however, be very disruptive. 

Dr Shevel says you mustn’t let recurring headaches ruin your life. “If you find you are constantly taking medication or it’s affecting your work, you probably suffer from chronic headaches. The problem we see is that doctors tend to treat the symptoms and not the underlying problem.”

The bottom line: if chronic headaches are disrupting your life, get help!


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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