Symptoms of Pilocytic Astrocytoma

Pilocytic astrocytoma is a slow-growing cancer that occurs most commonly in children and young adults. It may not cause symptoms until it's big enough to press on nearby brain tissue and cause problems. Symptoms may include headaches, seizures, and blurred vision.

In this article, the symptoms, and complications of PA will be explored, including when to seek medical attention.

Mother holding cloth on daughter's head

Chanintorn Vanichsawangphan / EyeEm/Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

Symptoms of PA depend on where it is in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and how big the tumor is. A common symptom of PA is increased pressure within the brain, which may be caused by the tumor itself or by blockage of the fluid-filled spaces in the brain.

Symptoms of increased intracranial pressure include:

  • Headache
  • Lethargy (lack of energy)
  • Seizures without fever
  • Vomiting without nausea
  • Decrease in consciousness
  • Changes in behavior

PAs most often grow in the cerebellum, the part of the brain located in the back of the head, just above the neck. Symptoms of brain tumors in the cerebellum can include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble with eye movement
  • Changes in speech
  • Clumsy movements of the hands, arms, feet, or legs
  • Problems walking (ataxia)

Some PAs grow near the optic nerve, causing symptoms such as blurry vision or loss of vision in the eye involved.

A PA in the hypothalamus or pituitary gland may cause premature puberty and weight gain or loss, and it can affect a child’s growth, stature, and behavior.

A PA in the brain stem may be associated with:

  • Weakness
  • Problems walking (ataxia)
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Trouble with eye or other facial movements
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Double vision
  • Hearing loss

The brain stem contains regions that modulate breathing and heart function.

When brain tumors affect the brain stem, they can interfere with breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure, causing sudden, dangerous changes in these vital functions. This may cause a sudden emergency or even death. 

Rare Symptoms

Rarely, PA is found in the spinal cord. Symptoms can vary depending on the tumor location and type. These symptoms may include but are not limited to:

  • Back and/or neck pain
  • Arm and/or leg pain
  • Difficulty standing and/or walking
  • Fatigue 
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Loss of feeling in parts of the body
  • Muscle weakness

Only around 2% of all PA tumors are found in the spinal cord.

Subgroup Indications

PA occurs most commonly in children and young adults. Signs and symptoms of brain tumors in children are often the same as those in adults but some are unique to children, including:

  • A headache that awakens a child from sleep
  • Not reaching age-appropriate developmental milestones
  • Behavioral changes (for example, a loud child may become quiet and vice versa)
  • Turning their head in order to see something, as opposed to moving their eyes
  • Vomiting, often projectile vomiting

In infants, the soft spot (fontanel) on the skull where the plates have not yet closed may bulge, and the baby may become fussy when their head is touched. 

Complications

Complications are often associated with brain tumors that increase in size, but even a small tumor can cause problems if it is near structures in the body that control vital functions. 

Often, a brain tumor obstructs the flow of fluid in the ventricles, the "open" regions of the brain through which fluid flows. When this occurs, intracranial pressure increases, and symptoms of confusion, vision impairment, and loss of consciousness arise.

Sometimes, the ventricular obstruction cannot be relieved, so fluid must be removed; often, a device called a shunt must be placed. 

When to See a Doctor

It's important to remember that symptoms of PA overlap with many much less serious problems, and, most of the time, do not indicate a brain tumor.

Call your healthcare provider if your child is having frequent headaches, cognitive problems, weakness, or visual problems. 

Summary

The symptoms of PA depend on where it is in the brain or central nervous system and how big the tumor is. When symptoms do occur, they can include headaches, seizures, vision problems, and in infants, an enlarged head.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms of PA may be very mild and subtle or severe and life-threatening. Keep in mind, however, that most of these symptoms are common to many other conditions.

If you are worried about your child, speak to your healthcare provider, who may order tests to rule out anything serious.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chourmouzi, D., Papadopoulou, E., Konstantinidis, M. et al. Manifestations of pilocytic astrocytoma: a pictorial reviewInsights Imaging 5, 387–402 (2014). doi:10.1007/s13244-014-0328-2

  2. Collins VP, Jones DT, Giannini C. Pilocytic astrocytoma: pathology, molecular mechanisms and markersActa Neuropathol. 2015;129(6):775-788. doi:10.1007/s00401-015-1410-7

  3. NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders). Juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma.

  4. Lanphear J, Sarnaik S. Presenting symptoms of pediatric brain tumors diagnosed in the emergency department. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2014;30(2):77-80. doi:10.1097/PEC.0000000000000074