Headaches, seizures and weakness throughout the body can all be potential brain tumor symptoms. Because these symptoms can also be signs of other conditions, how do you know the difference between a common headache and something more serious?
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in the brain that might be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). When people think about brain tumors, they most likely think it’s anything that occurs inside the head.
The way brain tumors are categorized depends on where they are in the skull. “Tumors are typically named by the cells that they derive from,” Weinberg says. “For example, astrocytoma is a type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. It begins in cells called astrocytes that support nerve cells.”
What are common brain tumor signs and symptoms?
There are a few common brain tumor symptoms. These include:
Red flags include headaches that:
won't go away after you try over-the-counter pain medication
make you vomit
wake you up in the middle of the night
are worse when you lie flat
“If you have a headache and notice other neurologic symptoms, such as weakness or feeling uncoordinated, these are all warning signs that something may be going on that warrants medical attention,” Weathers says. “It might not mean that it’s a brain tumor, but it’s a sign that you should see a doctor urgently.
A seizure can be related to many different types of diagnoses. For a brain tumor, a seizure might occur because the tumor is irritating that part of the brain. Seizures also vary in how they present. “A seizure doesn’t have to be a big event where someone loses consciousness and shakes all over,” Weathers says. “It can be more subtle than that.” A seizure might target a certain part of the body and cause tingling in the arm or leg, confusion, or trouble speaking.
Changes related to motor function of the brain
Depending on the location of the brain tumor, it ight affect the motor function of the brain. Some people might experience weakness of the face, arms or legs. If a tumor involves a sensory area, a patient may experience numbness.
“The person could also have difficulty speaking, understanding or both,” Weathers says. “And very rarely, if a tumor involves the back part of the brain near the brainstem, they can present with incoordination. This includes difficulty with balance, either with walking or using the arms and legs.”
“If there’s pressure on the cranial nerves, you’re going to have dysfunction from what that nerve does,” Weinberg says. “An acoustic neuroma might present itself through ringing in the ear or weakness of the face. You can have pressure on the nerve that controls the tongue, so your tongue might not stick out straight. Pituitary tumors might cause blind spots. You can have an eye movement disability, and sometimes patients won’t be able to look straight up.”
Are symptoms different for malignant versus benign brain tumors?
Unfortunately, there is no specific symptom that confirms whether someone has a brain tumor, whether it be malignant or benign.
Sometimes, low-grade tumors, such as oligodendrogliomas, have a higher tendency to present with a seizure versus a high-grade tumor such as a glioblastoma, says Weathers. If a tumor is growing rapidly, the patient may experience new headaches that cause nausea and vomiting.
When should I contact you’re my doctor if I start to notice brain tumor symptoms?
Reach out to your primary care doctor when a symptom is new and different.
“All of these symptoms might be caused by something different, but if symptoms like a headache continue to become more painful or severe over the course of a few weeks, it deserves to be looked at,” Weinberg says.
How will my doctor determine if I have a brain tumor?
Your primary care doctor will most likely evaluate you in person to look for anything abnormal. This evaluation might include imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI. If there’s an urgent need for care, such as extreme headaches or a seizure, you may need to go to an emergency room for evaluation.