Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of adult brain and spinal cord tumors

Signs and symptoms of brain or spinal cord tumors may occur gradually and become worse over time, or they can happen suddenly, such as with a seizure.

General symptoms

Tumors in any part of the brain may cause the pressure inside the skull (known as intracranial pressure) to rise. This can be caused by growth of the tumor itself, swelling in the brain, or blockage of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Increased pressure can lead to general symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness or even coma

Headaches that tend to get worse over time are a common symptom of brain tumors, occurring in about half of patients. (Of course, most headaches are not caused by tumors.)

As many as half of people with brain tumors will have seizures at some point. The type of seizure may depend on where the tumor is. Sometimes this is the first sign of a brain tumor, but fewer than 1 in 10 first seizures are caused by brain tumors.

Symptoms of tumors in different parts of the central nervous system

Brain and spinal cord tumors often cause problems with the specific functions of the region they develop in. But these symptoms can be caused by any disease in that particular location — they do not always mean a person has a brain or spinal cord tumor.

  • Tumors in the parts of the cerebrum (the large, outer part of the brain) that control movement or sensation can cause weakness or numbness of part of the body, often on just one side.
  • Tumors in or near the parts of the cerebrum responsible for language can cause problems with speech or even understanding words.
  • Tumors in the front part of the cerebrum can sometimes affect thinking, personality, and language.
  • Tumors in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia typically cause abnormal movements and an abnormal positioning of the body.
  • If the tumor is in the cerebellum, which controls coordination, a person might have trouble with walking or other everyday functions, even eating.
  • Tumors in the back part of the cerebrum, or around the pituitary gland, the optic nerve, or certain other cranial nerves can cause vision problems.
  • Tumors in or near other cranial nerves might lead to loss of hearing, balance problems, weakness of some facial muscles, or trouble swallowing.
  • Spinal cord tumors can cause numbness, weakness, or lack of coordination in the arms and/or legs (usually on both sides of the body), as well as bladder or bowel problems.

The brain also controls functions of some other organs, including hormone production, so brain tumors can also cause many other symptoms that aren’t listed here.

Having one or more of the symptoms above does not mean that you definitely have a brain or spinal cord tumor. All of these symptoms can have other causes. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, especially if they don’t go away or get worse over time, see your doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.


Last Medical Review: 03/05/2014
Last Revised: 03/05/2014