Could That Headache Mean a Brain Tumor?

Young woman with a headache

You get a headache.

It’s so bad that you can’t get out of bed. And you can’t help it, but the thought crosses your mind: “Do I have a brain tumor?”

Your Brain Tumor Risk

Thankfully, for most people, the answer is no, says Dr. Martin Rutkowski, a neurosurgeon at Augusta University Health. “Brain tumors, whether benign or malignant, are very rare,”—with the average person having a less than 1% chance of developing a brain tumor.

Even though headaches can be a symptom, “we worry more if a headache won’t go away, wakes you up at night or is associated with another symptom,” he said, “such as seizures, changes in vision, sudden loss of consciousness, any new weakness or strange sensations in the body, or in severe cases, trouble speaking or understanding speech. Those are definitely red-flag symptoms to see a doctor in a short amount of time.”

As you grow older, you may have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor. Family history—and some hormones—also increase risk. Anyone growing up in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, who may have been exposed to large amounts of radiation to the head—once a common treatment for acne or dandruff—is at higher risk. Tobacco could be an indirect cause: About 50% of brain tumors start somewhere else in the body, like the lungs, then spread to the brain.

Another type of brain tumor is a pituitary gland tumor. Although the lifetime risk is higher, with about 1 in 6 people developing this tumor, 99% of the tumors are benign, or safe—although they may still need to be removed because they could start to put pressure on the brain or cause problems related to hormone changes.

What About Cell Phones?

One of the most common questions people have is whether or not cell phones can cause brain tumors. “Right now, the data is not convincing,” said Rutkowski. “U.S. studies have not found any link. There is data from Europe that is not quite as definitive, but right now as far as we know, there is no link between cell phones and brain tumors.

“That being said, changes in technology are happening all the time, and people are still actively studying cell phones. But for the public’s peace of mind, we don’t see a link right now.”

Treatment Options

Depending on the type of brain tumor, there are three primary treatment options:

  • Surgery. Surgery can help establish a diagnosis, and it’s also used to remove tumors creating pressure on the brain and causing symptoms.
  • Focused radiation. Gamma Knife is one example of radiosurgery that uses a single high dose of radiation directed at the tumor.
  • Repeat radiation. Repeated smaller doses of radiotherapy can also be used to shrink brain tumors.

Chemotherapy is not a typical treatment, but a very small subset of tumors, including one type of pituitary tumor, can be treated using medical therapy. “And a new exciting realm of biologic agents—immunotherapy—is being used to target specific mutations or alterations in some pediatric and adult tumors,” said Rutkowski.

Do Remember This

Even though just hearing your doctor say the words, “brain tumor,” is scary, the first thing to remember, says Rutkowski, is that “a large proportion of brain tumors are benign. Just because it’s a brain tumor doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cancer. Don’t immediately assume the worst.”

Secondly, even if it does turn out to be cancer, modern treatment options are getting better and better all the time, including minimally invasive techniques to safely take out brain tumors, lasers delivered through small electrodes to destroy tumors, as well as medical therapies and immunotherapies.

“Today’s brain tumor prognosis can span multiple decades,” says Rutkowski. “Given increasing numbers of treatment options, we have new reasons for optimism.”

To find a primary care physician or schedule an appointment at Augusta University Health, visit or call 706-721-2273 (CARE).

About the author

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.