A brain tumor may sound like a scary, even devastating possibility. Basically a growth of abnormal cells in your brain, a brain tumor can be benign – that is, without cancer cells or malignant – with cancer cells. Understanding brain tumor symptoms early can mean a better shot at a positive outcome.
Around 130 types of brain tumors have been identified till date.
But to understand brain tumor symptoms, you need to know the location of the tumor too. A tumor forms when cells divide abnormally and rapidly. As the neurons in your brain cannot divide, you never get a nerve cell tumor. But the cells in the meninges (the outer covering of the brain), the glial cells surrounding the neurons, and the cells in the pituitary and pineal glands do.
Another way you could get brain tumors is when tumors in other parts of the body start spreading and travel to the brain.
Brain tumor symptoms are caused by their location or the pressure they put on the brain. Which is why symptoms vary from one patient to another.
Your skull has limited space as it cannot expand. And any tumor, big or small, will increase the pressure inside the cranium (skull) and on the brain. Symptoms caused by brain tumors are either due to this pressure, medically known as intracranial pressure or ICP, or their location.
Since different parts of the brain control different body parts and their functions, the symptoms of brain tumor also differ widely depending on the location. Common brain tumor symptoms are:
1. Seizures: Mostly Partial
Believe it or not, seizures are the commonest symptom of brain tumor, with about 60% patients experiencing them. They occur mostly when the tumors are located in the central part of the brain and have a slow growth rate and many lesions.1
If you have no history of seizures, you must get it checked by a doctor to rule out the possibility of a brain tumor. About 60% brain tumor patients experience seizure.
They are also common in cases of slowly growing gliomas (tumors in the glial cells), convexity meningiomas (tumors on the meninges), brain stem tumors, and when the tumor has started metastasizing or spreading to nearby cells.
Seizures occur when the tumors interfere with the electric signals between nerve cells, either disrupting or intensifying them. Depending on the location of the tumor, the seizure can be generalized, affecting the entire body, or partial, resulting in spasms in a specific group of muscles or affecting specific nerves. Sometimes, a seizure can make you feel “strange” in a way that you won’t be able to describe afterward. Sometimes, you won’t even be able to recall this phase later. These are focal seizures.
Partial seizures are probably more common in the initial stages. Some people may notice a warning signal before the seizure occurs, like a headache, nausea, or dizziness.2
2. Headaches: Inexplicable And Resistant To Medicines
A new persistent headache is a common sign of brain tumor, though not the first sign. About 50% of all brain tumor patients complain of headaches but not usually at tumor onset. Either the tumor puts pressure on the brain or blocks the drainage of the cerebrospinal fluid and raises the ICP, which results in headaches.
It’s difficult to differentiate between a tumor-related headache and a normal one you might get because of sinus, flu, or migraine.
Watch out for a new, persistent headache that is worse when you cough, bend, or sneeze and doesn’t improve with your regular headache medicines.
- The pain may be throbbing and resemble a migraine or may even be like a tension headache.
- It was believed that a tumor headache is worst in the morning and gets better within a few hours, but this may not always be the case.3
- The pain also shoots up when you do something that increases the pressure in your head, say coughing, sneezing, or bending.
- Over-the-counter medicines, rest, or sleep do not help.
- It might also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.4
3. Vomiting: Persistent And Inexplicable
If you feel like throwing up or are actually throwing up without any problem in your digestive system, see if they occur with headaches or a problem in your vision.
Persistent vomiting or nausea, without any apparent reason, especially in the morning or when you change your position, can be a sign of a brain tumor. Vomiting is often a result of raised pressure inside the skull, which is why movement triggers it.
In a study on 111 brain tumor patients with primary and metastatic tumors, 40% complained of vomiting and nausea.5
This means that vomiting is a common sign across the various stages of brain tumor. It is usually thought to be a symptom of a tumor in the cerebellum. However, if it presents without other symptoms, we often misdiagnose vomiting as a symptom of a problem in the digestive system.
4. Vision Problems: Loss Of Vision Or Double Vision
Seeing floating shapes in front of your eyes, seeing everything double, or losing vision on and off may all indicate tumors in different parts of the brain.
- Blurred sight, vision loss that comes and goes, or seeing floating shapes like small dots or thin strands in front of your eyes can all indicate a tumor.
- A tumor in the occipital lobe may mean loss of vision in one eye or sometimes both eyes.
- A tumor in the brain stem may cause double vision.
- Pituitary tumors or adenomas affecting the optic nerve may lead to loss of field of vision,6 which means your peripheral vision may be affected. In simple words, if you are staring straight ahead, you will be able to see only what’s directly in front of you and not sideways, almost as though you were looking through a tunnel. This is why this type of vision loss is also known as tunnel vision.
- Sometimes, flickering or twitching eyes may also be a sign of a tumor in the cerebellum. An eye twitch can also be caused by these 7 factors.
5. Personality Change: Depression Or Aggression
A tumor in the frontal lobe, which controls your personality, can make you behave inappropriately in a certain social situation, like swearing or becoming violent.
Depending on the location and the growth rate of the tumor, your personality traits may change noticeably or subtly. A fast-growing tumor in the frontal lobe can bring about personality changes suddenly, making you feel easily irritated, depressed, and confused. You may even turn aggressive, though you may have had no history of aggressive behavior. You may also behave in culturally or socially inappropriate ways.7 This is because the frontal lobe is responsible for your personality traits. If a tumor affects the quality of the nerve signals in this area of the brain, you would lose control over your emotions and impulses and not be able to adjust your behavior in accordance with your environment.
6. Speech And Hearing: Difficulty Speaking Meaningfully
Stuttering, forgetting words, and speaking in meaningless sentences are all signs of dysphasia and aphasia, which can be caused by tumors in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes.
A sudden loss of communication skills can indicate a brain tumor. You may slur, stutter, speak haltingly, grope for appropriate words, muddle words, forget names of common objects, and be unable to string a meaningful sentence together. Sometimes, you may speak fluently but your speech may be filled with “non-words.” You may be able to write but not read out what you’ve written. These symptoms can also indicate a stroke or a migraine attack. All three are serious medical conditions and need attention.
How does a tumor affect your language? Your brain has two main speech centers and a tumor in any of these lobes can make conversations difficult.
- Wernicke’s area near the temporal lobe that helps you understand language and decipher others’ speech
- Broca’s area near the frontal lobe that helps in speech production so that you speak meaningfully and fluently
This difficulty in using and understanding language is known as dysphasia or aphasia.8
You may also have difficulty repeating after others if the tumor is in your parietal lobe and is affecting the inferior parietal lobule, another area associated in speech production and speech repetition. However, if you cannot understand someone else’s words, and it may also have to do with hearing loss associated with brain stem tumors.
7. Memory Loss: Recalling Or Registering Information
You may forget objects, people, places, or events you knew before you got the tumor (long-term memory) or forget most information about events that happened ever since you got the tumor (short-term memory).
A brain tumor, especially in the frontal and the temporal lobes,9 may affect your memory of objects, people, places, or events in your life. The inability to recall any such information that you knew before you had the brain tumor is known as retrograde amnesia.
You might also not be able to remember anything that happened since the brain tumor developed. This inability to process new information is known as anterograde amnesia.10 Sadly, memory loss may be an effect of the treatment as well.
8. Fatigue: Despite Extra Sleep
You may feel more sleepy than usual but even extra sleep might not cure you of the fatigue and lethargy you feel.
You may experience extreme weariness of the body. It could be because of the seizures, headache, or nausea or because your body is using up most of its energy in fighting the tumor. Also, as the tumor makes simple everyday tasks a challenge, the extra amount of concentration and effort you need to put in everything may tire you out.
This sense of fatigue is often not cured by sleep or rest, even though as the tumor grows, you might be sleeping more than usual or falling asleep during the day. The tiredness is often accompanied by apathy, irritability, depression, or negative feelings about yourself and others.11
9. Clumsiness: Loss Of Balance And Coordination
Loss of balance, lack of coordination in the limbs, trouble swallowing, and numbness or weakness in one side of the body can be because of brain tumors.
If you are finding it difficult to maintain your balance while walking or having difficulty coordinating your hands and legs, it might be a symptom of brain tumor. This might be caused by a tumor in the cerebellum, the primary motor cortex, or the parietal lobe, all of which are responsible in different ways for the coordination of movements. A brain stem tumor that affects hearing can also contribute to loss of balance.
If your clumsiness can be attributed to numbness or weakness in one side of your body, it might be caused by a tumor in the parietal lobe. As the brain stem and the frontal lobe control muscular movements related to swallowing and speaking, respectively, patients also have trouble with these activities if they get tumors in these areas.
10. Abnormal Physiological Changes: Large Limbs And Irregular Periods
If your hands and feet are suddenly getting larger, even after you’ve crossed the growth years, scan for a pituitary tumor.
A tumor in the pituitary gland can cause irregular periods, excessive production of breast milk, development of breasts in men, and excessive body hair. It may also lead to the enlargement of your hands and feet, obesity, and changes in your blood pressure.12 A drooping eyelid or a drooping mouth can indicate a tumor in the brain stem.
Who Gets Brain Tumors?
Most brain tumors develop in people over the age of 50. If you have a family history of brain tumors or your brain has been exposed to radiation, say, during radiotherapy, you might be at higher risk.
Genetic conditions like neurofibromatosis, Turcot syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, Li-Fraumeni cancer syndrome, and Gorlin syndrome are associated with brain tumors that tend to develop in early adulthood or childhood.
Malignant brain tumors usually seem to develop when cancer from some other part of the body spreads to the brain. And, sometimes, benign brain tumors can also turn malignant.13
Do keep in mind that many of the symptoms mentioned here can also be caused by various other conditions and sometimes even due to deficiencies. So, there’s no reason to panic. However, it’s always a good idea to get a checkup if you have persistent symptoms that could indicate a brain tumor.
Your doctor might do a neurological exam and tests like a CT scan, an MRI, or a biopsy. Treatment for brain tumors can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, targeted therapy (where substances that target cancer cells and leave normal cells unharmed are used for treatment), or a combination of these.
|↑1||Sperling, Michael R., and James Ko. “Seizures and brain tumors.” In Seminars in oncology, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 333-341. WB Saunders, 2006.|
|↑2||https://www.cancer.duke.edu/btc/modules/patienteducation11/index.php%3Fid%3D51+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=in" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">General Information | All About Seizures. The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke.|
|↑3, ↑5||Forsyth, Peter A., and Jerome B. Posner. “Headaches in patients with brain tumors A study of 111 patients.” Neurology 43, no. 9 (1993): 1678-1678.|
|↑4||Headaches. American Brain Tumor Association.|
|↑6||Pituitary Adenoma Causing Compression of the Optic Chiasm. University of Iowa Health Care|
|↑7||Personality Changes and Brain Tumors. The Brain Tumour Charity.|
|↑8||Symptoms of a Brain Tumour in Adults. The Brain Tumour Charity.|
|↑9||Memory Difficulties and Brain Tumours. The Brain Tumour Charity|
|↑10||Memory Problems and Brain Tumours. The Brain Tumour Charity.|
|↑11||Fatigue and Brain Tumours. The Brain Tumour Charity.|
|↑12||Brain tumor – primary – adults. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑13||Causes of a Malignant Brain Tumour. National Health Service.|