Brain tumor: what are the symptoms?


A brain tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal cells in your brain. There are many different types of brain tumors. Some brain tumors are non-cancerous (benign), others are cancerous (malignant). Brain tumors can start in the brain (primary brain tumors) or in other parts of the body and spread to the brain as secondary (metastatic) brain tumors. The growth rate of a brain tumor can vary greatly. The growth rate as well as the location of a brain tumor determines how it will affect the functioning of your nervous system. Brain tumor treatment options depend on the type of brain tumor you have, as well as its size and location.

Symptoms of a Brain Tumor

The signs and symptoms of a brain tumor are highly variable and depend on the size, location and growth rate of the tumor.

The signs and general symptoms caused by a brain tumor can be the following:

– The appearance of new headaches or a change in the pattern of headaches.

– headaches that gradually become more frequent and severe

– unexplained nausea or vomiting

– vision problems, such as blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision

– Gradual loss of feeling or movement in one arm or leg

– Difficulties with balance

– Speech difficulties

– Feeling very tired

– Confusion in everyday affairs

– Difficulty making decisions

– Inability to following simple orders

– Changes in personality or behavior

– Seizures, especially in a person who has no history of epileptic seizures.

– Hearing problems

When to consult a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.

Main causes of a brain tumor

Primary brain tumors start in the brain itself or in tissues close to it, such as the membranes that cover the brain (meninges), cranial nerves, pituitary or pineal gland. Primary brain tumors occur when normal cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell it what to do. Mutations tell cells to grow and divide rapidly and continue to live when healthy cells would die. The result is a mass of abnormal cells, which forms a tumor. In adults, primary brain tumors are much less common than secondary brain tumors, in which the cancer starts elsewhere and spreads to the brain.

There are many different types of primary brain tumors. Each takes its name from the type of cells involved.

Here are some examples:


These tumors start in the brain or spinal cord and include astrocytomas, ependymomas, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas.


A meningioma is a tumor that develops from the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Most meningiomas are not cancerous.

Acoustic neuromas

These are benign tumors that develop on the nerves that control balance and hearing, from the inner ear to the brain.

Pituitary adenomas

These are tumors that develop in the pituitary gland, at the base of the brain. These tumors can affect pituitary hormones with effects throughout the body.


These cancerous tumors of the brain are more common in children, although they can occur at any age. A medulloblastoma begins in the lower back part of the brain and tends to spread into the cerebrospinal fluid.

Germ cell tumors

Germ cell tumors can develop in childhood and affect the testicles or ovaries. But sometimes germ cell tumors affect other parts of the body, such as the brain.


These rare tumors grow near the pituitary gland of the brain, which secretes hormones that control many bodily functions. Growing slowly, craniopharyngioma can affect the pituitary gland and other structures near the brain.

Cancer that starts elsewhere and spreads to the brain

Secondary (metastatic) brain tumors are tumors resulting from cancer that starts elsewhere in your body and spreads (metastasizes) to your brain. Secondary brain tumors occur most often in people who have a history of cancer. In rare cases, a metastatic brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that started elsewhere in your body. In adults, secondary brain tumors are much more common than primary brain tumors.

Any type of cancer can spread to the brain, but the most common types are:

breast cancer

colon cancer

cancer kidney

lung cancer


Brain Tumor Risk Factors

In most people with primary brain tumours, the cause of the tumor is unclear. But doctors have identified certain factors that may increase your risk of brain tumors.

Risk factors include:

Exposure to radiation

People who have been exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation have an increased risk of brain tumors. Examples of ionizing radiation include radiation therapy used to treat cancer and radiation exposure caused by atomic bombs.

Family history of brain tumors

A small portion of brain tumors occur in people with a family history of brain tumors or a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain tumors.


If you are suspected of having a brain tumor, your doctor may recommend a number of tests and procedures, including:

A neurological examination

A neurological examination may include, among other things, checking your vision, hearing, balance, your coordination, strength and reflexes. Difficulties in one or more areas can provide clues as to which part of your brain may be affected by a brain tumor.

Imaging tests

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is commonly used to help diagnose brain tumours. A dye is sometimes injected into a vein in your arm during your MRI scan. A number of specialized components of MRI, including functional MRI, perfusion MRI, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy, can help your doctor assess the tumor and plan treatment.

Other imaging tests are sometimes recommended in certain situations, including computed tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET).

Removal and analysis of a sample of abnormal tissue (biopsy).

A biopsy may be performed as part of an operation to remove the brain tumor, or a biopsy can be performed using a needle. A stereotaxic needle biopsy may be done for brain tumors in hard to reach areas or very sensitive areas of your brain that could be damaged by a larger operation. Your neurosurgeon drills a small hole in your skull. A fine needle is then inserted into this hole. Tissue is removed using the needle, which is often guided by a CT scan or MRI.

The biopsy sample is then examined under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous or benign. Sophisticated lab tests can give your doctor clues about your prognosis and treatment options. Studying your biopsy sample and determining exactly what type of brain tumor you have is a complex process. If you are unsure of your diagnosis, consider seeking a second opinion at a medical center where many brain biopsies are evaluated each year.

Alternative Medicine and Brain Tumor

Little research has been done on complementary and alternative treatments for brain tumours. Alternative treatments have not been proven to cure brain tumors. However, complementary treatments can help you cope with the stress of being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Here are some complementary treatments that can help you cope:


art therapy

Physical exercise


music therapy

Relaxation exercises

Discuss these options with your doctor.


Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Cancer of the central nervous system. In: Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Elsevier; 30. Accessed March ,


Central nervous system cancers . National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Accessed March ,


Wong ET, and para. Overview of the clinical features and diagnosis of brain tumors in adults. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Adult central nervous system tumors treatment (PDQ) — Patient version. National Cancer Institute. . Accessed March , 30.

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