What are symptoms of brain tumors?

The symptoms of brain tumors depend on tumor size, type, and location. Symptoms may be caused when a tumor presses on a nerve or damages a certain area of the brain. They also may be caused when the brain swells or fluid builds up within the skull.
These are the most common symptoms of brain tumors:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality, or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures or convulsions)
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs

These symptoms are not sure signs of a brain tumor. Other conditions also could cause these problems. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Only a doctor can diagnose and treat the problem.

How are brain tumors diagnosed?

If a person has symptoms that suggest a brain tumor, the doctor may perform one or more of the following procedures:

  • Physical exam - The doctor checks general signs of health.
  • Neurologic exam - The doctor checks for alertness, muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, and response to pain. The doctor also examines the eyes to look for swelling caused by a tumor pressing on the nerve that connects the eye and brain.
  • CT scan - An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of the head. The patient may receive an injection of a special dye so the brain shows up clearly in the pictures. The pictures can show tumors in the brain.
  • MRI - A powerful magnet linked to a computer makes detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures are viewed on a monitor and can also be printed. Sometimes a special dye is injected to help show differences in the tissues of the brain. The pictures can show a tumor or other problem in the brain.

The doctor may ask for other tests:

  • Angiogram - Dye injected into the bloodstream flows into the blood vessels in the brain to make them show up on an x-ray. If a tumor is present, the doctor may be able to see it on the x-ray.
  • Skull x-ray - Some types of brain tumors cause calcium deposits in the brain or changes in the bones of the skull. With an x-ray, the doctor can check for these changes.
  • Spinal tap - The doctor may remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord). This procedure is performed with local anesthesia. The doctor uses a long, thin needle to remove fluid from the spinal column. A spinal tap takes about 30 minutes. The patient must lie flat for several hours afterward to keep from getting a headache. A laboratory checks the fluid for cancer cells or other signs of problems.
  • Myelogram - This is an x-ray of the spine. A spinal tap is performed to inject a special dye into the cerebrospinal fluid. The patient is tilted to allow the dye to mix with the fluid. This test helps the doctor detect a tumor in the spinal cord.
  • Biopsy - The removal of tissue to look for tumor cells is called a biopsy. A pathologist looks at the cells under a microscope to check for abnormal cells. A biopsy can show cancer, tissue changes that may lead to cancer, and other conditions. A biopsy is the only sure way to diagnose a brain tumor.
  • Surgeons can obtain tissue to look for tumor cells in three ways:
    • Needle biopsy - The surgeon makes a small incision in the scalp and drills a small hole into the skull. This is called a burr hole. The doctor passes a needle through the burr hole and removes a sample of tissue from the brain tumor.
    • Stereotactic biopsy - An imaging device, such as CT or MRI, guides the needle through the burr hole to the location of the tumor. The surgeon withdraws a sample of tissue with the needle.
    • Biopsy at the same time as treatment - Sometimes the surgeon takes a tissue sample when the patient has surgery to remove the tumor.

Sometimes a biopsy is not possible. If the tumor is in the brain stem or certain other areas, the surgeon may not be able to remove tissue from the tumor without damaging normal brain tissue. The doctor uses MRI, CT, or other imaging tests instead.