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 delays
  • Drop in intellectual and/or physical abilities
  • Increased head size, sometimes along with bulging of the soft spots of the skull (fontanelles)

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 brain or spinal cord

Tumors in different parts of the brain or spinal cord can cause different symptoms. But these symptoms can be caused by any abnormality in that particular location – they don’t always mean a child 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 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 the cerebellum (the lower, back part of the brain that controls coordination) can cause 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 nerves, 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 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 necessarily mean that your child 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.

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.

Lau C, Teo WY. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of central nervous system tumors in children. UpToDate. 2018. Accessed at www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis-of-central-nervous-system-tumors-in-children on April 24, 2018.

Williams D, Parsons IF, Pollack DA. Chapter 26A: Gliomas, Ependymomas, and Other Nonembryonal Tumors of the Central Nervous System. In: Pizzo PA, Poplack DG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2016.

Last Medical Review: June 20, 2018 Last Revised: June 20, 2018

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.