Signs and Symptoms of a Brain Tumor

5 Most Common Features You Should Know About

Woman with a headache
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Although there are many types of brain tumors, people with cancer of the brain will share many of the same symptoms. The symptoms develop as the tumor invades and damages specific parts of the brain, causing localized compression or increasing pressure within the skull itself ( intracranial pressure). The severity of these symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening and tend to worsen over time.

Here are five of the more common symptoms of a brain tumor you should know about:


Many people will begin to worry a brain tumor if faced with a persistent headache. While headaches are common in this situation, they are not on their own not a strong indication of cancer. More often than not, if cancer is present, the headache would be accompanied by other, more severe symptoms.

Headaches are more concerning in this context if they occur when lying flat or if they are accompanied by nausea or vomiting. A headache may be felt on both sides of the head but tends to be worse on one side. The pain will often be dull and persistent but can also be throbbing if the tumor is near a larger blood vessel.

Headaches caused by a brain tumor are largely associated with increased intracranial pressure. This is why lying flat can cause pain: it reduces blood flow out of the skull and places added pressure on pain receptors. Sneezing, coughing, or bearing down during a bowel movement can have the same effect.

With that being said, most headaches are not caused brain tumors. Even if all of these symptoms are present, it will more likely due to things like migraines or cluster headaches. Whatever the cause, a headache should be checked out if it is persistent, if symptoms worsen, or if you cannot get relief from any pain medication.


A tumor can place excessive pressure on the brain, causing abnormal electrical activity that can lead to a seizure. In fact, roughly one of every five people with a brain tumor will report a seizure as their first symptom. All told, around 25 percent of cases include seizures as part of their symptoms.

Seizures are more often associated with cancers that start in the brain (primary tumor) as opposed to those that have spread from other parts of the body (secondary or metastatic tumors). The severity of a seizure can vary depending on the size and location of the tumor. Because the tumor’s location is static, the characteristics of a seizure will be more or less the same with each event.

Loss of Consciousness

Intracranial pressure can fluctuate whether you have a brain tumor or not. It is a natural, self-regulating process that can sometimes be thrown off balance by infection or disease.

With a brain tumor, the already-increased pressure can sometimes be pushed to point where the blood supply is severely constricted, cutting off oxygen to the brain. When this happens, a person can suddenly feel lightheaded and fall unconscious. As with a headache, fainting is more likely to occur with events that sharply increase intracranial pressure, such as sneezing, coughing, or vomiting.

Of all of the symptoms, loss of consciousness is one of the more concerning. If the pressure increases to the point where the blood flow is not enough to sustain consciousness, a coma can result.

Cognitive Changes

Brain tumors can sometimes cause changes to a person’s memory, personality, spatial abilities, and problem-solving skills. Sometimes these changes are incredibly subtle and easily ascribed to other causes. It is only when the symptoms become severe or debilitating that they are readily recognized as a neurological disorder.

Attention and information-processing speed can often be affected by a brain tumor, causing a slowing of response and a vulnerability to distractions and forgetfulness.The progressive degradation of these skills is more indicative of a brain-related disorder, whether it be caused by cancer or some other form of a disease.​

Focal Neurological Changes

Many of the more common symptoms of a brain tumor are present irrespective of where a cancer is located. Others are specific to the part of the brain where the tumor has developed.

Broadly speaking, the different parts of the brain coordinate different functions:

  • The frontal lobe is generally where memory, judgment, and movement originate.
  • The parietal lobe (at the top of the brain) processes sensory information involved in orientation and recognition.
  • The occipital lobe (to the back of the brain) processes visual information.
  • The temporal lobe (on the sides of the brain) are involved in hearing, language, expression, and memory.

Any tumor within these areas of the brain can affect specific changes in neurological function and response. As with other manifestations of a brain tumor, the cause may only become apparent when the condition worsens or is accompanied by a range of more characteristic symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms of a brain tumor can often be so elusive as to delay diagnosis and treatment. As such, it is sometimes difficult to know when to call a doctor. Generally speaking, if you have a serious hunch that something is wrong, get it looked it. This is especially true if:

  • Your symptoms are persistent or worsening.
  • There is a spectrum of mental and physical abnormalities occurring at once.
  • There are gaps in your cognitive or motor functions you can’t explain.

Even if a brain tumor is not involved, your doctor may be able to pinpoint the cause and prescribe effective treatment.

View Article Sources
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  • Perkins, A. and Liu, G. "Primary Brain Tumors in Adults: Diagnosis and Treatment." Am Fam Physician. 2016; 93(3):211-217B.s