Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors in children

Signs and symptoms from brain and spinal cord tumors might 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 might raise the pressure inside the skull (known as intracranial pressure). This can be caused by growth of the tumor, swelling in the brain, or blocked flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Increased pressure can lead to general symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Crossed eyes or blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Behavior changes
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness or even coma

Headaches that get worse over time are a common symptom of brain tumors. But not all brain tumors cause headaches, and most headaches are not caused by tumors.

In some children, seizures are the first symptom of a brain tumor. Most seizures in children are not caused by brain tumors, but if your child has a seizure, your child’s doctor may refer you to a neurologist (a doctor who specializes in brain and nervous system problems) to make sure it wasn’t caused by a brain tumor or other serious disease.

In the first few years of life, other symptoms of tumors can include irritability, loss of appetite, developmental delay, and a drop in intellectual and physical abilities. In very young children who can’t complain of symptoms, a parent may notice an increase in head size, sometimes along with bulging of the soft spots of the skull (fontanelles). This happens because the bones of the skull haven’t grown together yet, and increased pressure from a tumor can push them apart.

In the school-aged child, other general symptoms of tumors can include poor school performance, fatigue, and personality changes.

If the child can cooperate, the doctor can sometimes tell if pressure inside the skull is increased by looking inside the child’s eyes for swelling of the optic nerve (known as papilledema).

Symptoms of tumors in different parts of the central nervous system

Tumors in different parts of the brain or spinal cord can cause different symptoms. But these symptoms can be caused by any disease in that particular location – they don’t always mean a child has a brain or spinal cord tumor.

Brain and spinal cord tumors often cause problems with the specific functions of the region they develop in. For example:

  • Tumors in the parts of the cerebrum (the large, outer part of the brain) that control movement or sensation can cause weakness or numbness in a 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 skills.
  • Tumors in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia typically cause abnormal movements and body positions.
  • Tumors in the cerebellum, which controls coordination, can cause trouble walking or with other normal functions, even eating.
  • Tumors in the back part of the cerebrum, or around the pituitary gland, the optic nerves, 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 may 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.

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


Last Medical Review: 08/12/2014
Last Revised: 08/24/2014