You suffer from regular, long-lasting, intense headaches.
It is extremely rare that a headache is the sign of a brain tumour. The most common type of headache – tension headaches – can be caused by stress, excessive alcohol, lack of sleep or food, bright sunlight, dehydration, depression or simply noise. Headaches are also brought on by colds, flu or sinusitis. More intense and less common are migraines – triggered by a whole host of possible causes too numerous to mention here. Worst of all are cluster headaches, which cause excruciating pain in one side of the head, often behind the eye. ‘Like being stabbed in the face with a needle is how some people describe it,’ says Ratajczak. Fortunately they’re rare, affecting only one in 1,000 people – most of them smokers, although the exact causes aren’t known.
Headaches could also be a sign of meningitis or carbon monoxide poisoning. If they’re very sudden and agonising, it could be a ruptured brain aneurysm, where a blood vessel in the brain ruptures.
WHAT TO DO
Painkillers and relaxation will sort out most tension headaches. Migraine sufferers can also use stronger medication called triptans (and hide in a darkened room). For cluster headaches you need medical advice. Strong drugs are available. For more serious problems such as meningitis or ruptured aneurysms, or if there’s nausea and vomiting as well as a headache, you should head straight for the hospital.
As well as triptans, which cause blood vessels around the brain to contract, migraines can be treated with something called transcranial magnetic stimulation, using an electrical device that sends magnetic pulses through your skin into the brain. Cluster headaches are treated with various drugs, and occasionally with oxygen therapy, where pure oxygen is breathed through a mask.
If, God forbid, you really have got a brain tumour, surgery is required. ‘Craniotomy is the most common,’ says Bill Carlin, nurse and cancer specialist with Macmillan Cancer Support (macmillan.org.uk). ‘Surgeons remove a small area of bone or skull, remove the tumour – or as much of it as they can – and then follow up the operation with radiotherapy or chemotherapy.