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 might increase the pressure inside the skull (known as intracranial pressure). This can be caused by growth of the tumor itself, swelling in the brain, or blockage of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. 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.
  • If the tumor is in the cerebellum (the lower, back part of the brain that controls coordination), a person might have trouble walking, trouble with precise movements of hands, arms, feet, and legs, problems swallowing or synchronizing eye movements, and changes in speech rhythm.
  • 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 hearing loss (in one or both ears), balance problems, weakness of some facial muscles, facial numbness or pain, 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 not listed here.

Having one or more of the symptoms above does not necessarily mean that you 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 the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Chang SM, Mehta MP, Vogelbaum MA, Taylor MD, Ahluwalia MS. Chapter 97: Neoplasms of the central nervous system. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Dorsey JF, Hollander AB, Alonso-Basanta M, et al. Chapter 66: Cancer of the central nervous system. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE. Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2014.

Last Medical Review: September 30, 2017 Last Revised: November 6, 2017

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