The Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

Headaches, Nausea, and Other Signs of a Brain Tumor

Symptoms of Brain Tumors
Is it a Brain Tumor?. Nisian Hughes Collection/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If you've had a gnawing headache or other types of symptoms, you may be wondering, "Could it be a brain tumor?" Unfortunately, common brain tumor signs and symptoms tend to be non-specific and can mimic other illnesses. Many times, symptoms don't immediately raise red flags that scream "brain tumor" to a physician. Brain tumors are relatively uncommon relative to the other medical conditions that cause the same symptoms, and due to this reason, physicians don't usually evaluate for a brain tumor right away. Instead, they most often look for other, less serious conditions, at an initial visit.

Brain tumor symptoms vary greatly from one person to the next for a few reasons. Symptoms depend on where in the brain the tissue is located, and also its size. The size of a tumor, however, does not necessarily affect the severity of symptoms, as even a very small tumor can cause severe symptoms. In contrast, some brain tumors can grow quite large before causing symptoms. It depends on what part of the brain is affected.

Let's take a look at how brain tumors cause symptoms, the most common signs, and symptoms, and finally, what types of symptoms you might expect based on the location of the tumor in your brain.

How Brain Tumors Cause Symptoms

Brain tumors may cause symptoms in more than one way. They may cause symptoms locally, depending on the particular area of the brain where they are located, or they can cause symptoms systemically. 

Local symptoms (specific symptoms) often relate to the part of the brain that is occupied by a tumor. For example, a tumor in the area of the brain which processes vision may result in double vision. A tumor in the area of the brain that controls balance may result in incoordination.

Systemic symptoms (general symptoms) may result from problems such as increased intracranial pressure (increased pressure in the brain).  Elevated intracranial pressure may result in headaches, fatigue, and/or seizures.

Thirdly, brain tumors may cause problems when a tumor in one region of the brain causes tissue to be pressed (herniate) into another area of the brain. This could result in loss of consciousness or changes in breathing and heart rate.

Since tumors in the brain occur within the enclosed space of the skull, cancerous tumors (brain cancer) and benign tumors often have similar symptoms.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

The symptoms of a brain tumor may be very mild and subtle, or instead, they may be severe and life-threatening. Again, it's important to note that for most of these symptoms, there are other, more common causes. Still, even if these symptoms aren't a warning sign of a brain tumor it's important to talk to your doctor. Pain and other discomforts are your body's way of telling you something is wrong. Common signs and symptoms of a brain tumor include:

Headaches

Up to half of the people who have brain tumors suffer from headaches, but headaches are much more likely to be related to another benign condition. A headache is not usually the initial symptom of a brain tumor, nor is it usually the only symptom that's experienced.

Brain tumor headaches are often accompanied by one or more of the other symptoms discussed below such as nausea and vomiting. They tend to be dull and persistent, with throbbing headaches occurring less often. Headaches due to a brain tumor are often worse in the morning, or if you awaken from sleep during the night. They may get better throughout the day. 

Headaches are most often caused by increased intracranial pressure rather than compression by the tumor itself. Since lying flat decreases blood flow out of the skull, it often increases pain. Pain may also worsen with physical activity, sneezing, coughing, bending over, or bearing down while having a bowel movement. These headaches may be one-sided or all over but worse on one side of your head than the other. They tend to be constant (daily) and worsen over time.

If you are someone who doesn't get headaches, or if you do and your headaches have changed in character or have worsened, make sure to talk to your doctor.

Seizures

Up to a third of people report having seizures prior to being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Seizures may result from either local pressure in the brain or increased intracranial pressure which results in abnormal electrical signaling.

There are several different types of seizures that may occur. Tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures can cause the body to shake all over in varying levels of intensity. There is usually loss of consciousness as well as loss of bladder and sometimes bowel control. Myotonic seizures may cause bothersome muscle twitches, but without loss of consciousness.

Sensory seizures may result in changes in vision such as seeing flashing lights, a strange sense of smell, or other sensory symptoms. Some seizures may cause a person to sit still and stare into space, not seeing his surroundings. Yet other seizures may cause deja vu like experiences. When multiple seizures occur due to a brain tumor, they are often similar with regard to the type of seizure and the symptoms which occur.

Though seizures are most likely caused by another condition, like epilepsy or stroke, seek medical attention immediately if you believe that you have had a seizure.

Vomiting

Vomiting, especially in the morning and without nausea, can be a symptom of a brain tumor. Nausea, however, can also sometimes occur. Like getting headaches, vomiting is a very vague symptom that could be caused by a great number of different conditions. Vomiting is most common in the morning, and, when due to a brain tumor, is often triggered by an abrupt change (such as rolling over in bed).

Cognitive Changes

Brain tumors may result in many different types of cognitive changes. People may note problems with:

  • Memory: A brain tumor may cause the brain to process information at a slower speed. A person may become forgetful in a way that at first isn't alarming, but progresses beyond the forgetfulness we all experience at times.
  • Problem-solving: Tasks that require thinking, such as doing simple math, writing sentences, setting up a chess board, or even following a recipe may become challenging.
  • Concentration: A person may become more easily distracted and have problems staying on task. It may take longer to complete basic tasks than usual.
  • Confusion: Symptoms can vary from mild confusion, such as not understanding the nuances of a conversation, to more extreme symptoms, such as not recognizing the face of a familiar person.
  • Spatial problems: Problems with spatial perception may cause a person to appear clumsy, running into counters and such. A previously good driver may have a car accident due to changes in depth perception.

It's important to note that all of these symptoms can occur "normally" with fatigue, a lack of motivation, and other medical conditions. When these symptoms are related to a brain tumor, they usually continue when a person is well rested and otherwise feeling well.

Loss of Consciousness

Loss of consciousness may occur for a few reasons. A person may become progressively more fatigued to the point of unconsciousness, or unconsciousness may occur suddenly. When intracranial pressure becomes very high, it can constrict the blood vessels to the brain. Depending on the cause, loss of unconsciousness may progress to coma. Loss of consciousness due to a brain tumor is often associated with conditions which increase intracranial pressure, such as coughing, sneezing, vomiting, or bearing down for a bowel movement or to lift a heavy object.

Personality or Mood Changes

Adults who have brain tumors sometimes experience personality changes that are frustrating and can interrupt daily living activities. For example, laughing at things that are not humorous, having a sudden increased interest in sex, throwing temper tantrums, and experiencing paranoia are just a few of the possible personality changes that a person may experience if he or she has a brain tumor. A person may engage in risky behaviors. It's also possible for typical personality traits to become exaggerated. 

A person may also become emotionally labile, and the symptoms of a brain tumor have been known to mimic depression. Overall, it is a change in mood and personality, rather than any one type of behavior, that may be a symptom of a brain tumor.

Vision and Hearing Problems

Some brain tumors can cause visual or auditory disturbances that are difficult to ignore. Problems with vision can include seeing flashing lights, double vision, blurring, and floaters. Some people may not notice a subtle loss of vision until they have some form of accident. Auditory disturbances can include one-sided hearing loss and ringing in the ears. When a tumor involves the brainstem or a tumor higher up causes herniation of brain tissue into the brainstem, the pupil on one side of the body may become dilated. This is an emergency symptom if ever noted.

Physical Changes

An adult with a brain tumor may experience weakness on one side of the body. He or she may suddenly become clumsy—losing his or her balance, walking into walls, or stumbling. An abnormal gait may also be present and coordinated movements may become difficult. Difficulty in swallowing without an obvious cause may also be a symptom.

Speech Changes

Slurring of words, stuttering, or slow speech can occur. A person who has a brain tumor may have difficulty forming or finding words. This may progress to a person saying things that make very little sense, despite efforts to communicate well (expressive aphasia). Receptive aphasia, not understanding words spoken to him, may also occur.

Dizziness or Loss of Balance

A loss of the sense of balance combined with incoordination may be a symptom of a brain tumor, especially one in the lower back part of the brain called the cerebellum. A person may also have problems with depth perception, or feel as if the room is spinning.

Non-Specific Symptoms

Non-specific symptoms may also occur, such as excessive fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, and sleep problems.

Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

Children may have symptoms similar to adults, but the signs and symptoms of brain tumors in children may differ in some ways. A headache is the most common symptom and may awaken a child from sleep. A child may not be reaching the developmental milestones predicted for her age. A change in behavior may occur, and again, the important symptom is that it is a change. A loud child may become quiet or a quiet child may be loud. Unlike adults, children don't often notice the changes associated with a brain tumor themselves.

Instead of complaining of a headache, she may be hard to console. Instead of complaining about visual changes, you may see her turning her head as if that's needed to see something, or she may have difficulty reading. Vomiting may occur and is often projectile in nature.

In infants, the soft spot (fontanelle) may be noted to bulge, and a child may become fussy if her head is touched.

Symptoms Related to Tumors in Specific Areas of the Brain

Symptoms that occur due to the presence of a tumor in a specific area of the brain are referred to as "focal neurological changes." This contrasts with systemic (all over) changes, such as headaches, which are often related to increased intracranial pressure.

  • Frontal lobe tumors. The frontal lobes are the area of the brain where thinking and judgment take place. Tumors in this area can cause an intellectual decline as well as a change in personality. Due to pressure on the olfactory nerve, they may also result in a loss of the sense of smell (anosmia). The ability to speak (expressive aphasia) may also be impaired. 
  • Temporal lobe tumors. The temporal lobes are involved in speaking and hearing. Tumors in this area can result in auditory hallucinations (hearing things), an inability to understand speech (receptive aphasia), smacking lips, and vision changes. Symptoms such as deja vu experiences, depersonalization, and seeing things as either larger or smaller than they happen to be may also occur. Both frontal lobe and temporal lobe tumors may cause emotional changes, such as an increase in aggressiveness. 
  • Parietal lobe tumors. The parietal lobes at the top of the brain can cause changes in sensation on the opposite side of the body. This area of the brain is also very important in coordinating different parts of the brain, and tumors may result in problems with orientation (which way is up?) as well as recognition (an object placed in the hand may not be recognized). People with a tumor in this region may ignore one side of their body or experience spontaneous pain.
  • Occipital lobe tumors. The occipital lobes at the back of the brain are involved in vision. Symptoms can vary from visual hallucinations to visual field defects (only "seeing" part of the world around them), to blindness (referred to as cortical blindness as the eyes can be perfectly normal).
  • Cerebellar tumors. The cerebellum at the lower back of the brain is responsible for balance and coordination of body movements. Tumors in this region may cause incoordination, similar to the appearance of someone who is drunk (and sometimes people with brain tumors are mistaken as having imbibed too much at first). These tumors also can cause difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing or brushing teeth.
  • Brainstem tumors. The brainstem is relay station between the upper part of the brain and the rest of the body, and also controls vital functions such as breathing and heart rate. Tumors in this area may cause numbness or weakness on the opposite side of the body from the tumor, double vision with uneven pupils, dizziness, droopy eyelids, and other symptoms. Loss of consciousness may also occur, and death if not recognized. Tumors in the upper regions of the brain may also affect the brainstem if they cause pressure resulting in brain tissue herniating (getting pushed) into the brainstem.
  • Pituitary gland tumors. Tumors in the pituitary gland may result in lactation (production of milk), changes in menstrual periods, and growth of the hands and feet in an adult.

What to Do If Think You May Have a Brain Tumor

If you have any of these symptoms discussed, talk to your doctor. Most often, these symptoms will be due to another, less serious condition. Be open about your concerns so that your doctor can address your concerns early on, and explain why she is recommending any particular tests. Symptoms are our body's way of letting us know something is wrong. If you have any of these symptoms, it's important to get a diagnosis regardless of the cause.

Bottom Line on Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

The common signs and symptoms of brain tumors are also symptoms of many other medical conditions. That said, finding a brain tumor early reduces the chance that it will cause further damage and that it can be treated successfully. In the brain, even benign tumors can be dangerous, as they occur in the enclosed space of the skull, and pressure from an expanding tumor can compress other regions of the brain as well.

Make an appointment to see your doctor (or call 911 if you have one of the more severe symptoms) whether or not you believe you could have a tumor. There are many medical conditions that can cause these symptoms, and some of the other causes respond best to treatment when caught early as well.

View Article Sources