What Are the Early Symptoms of a Brain Tumor?

reviewing brain scan images for benign or malignant tumors

July 22, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this story:

When Middletown, New Jersey, teenager Matthew Keenan came to K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in November 2018 with a pulsing, unrelenting headache, it turned out to be a major clue that the high school senior had a brain tumor. But while most headaches don’t signal the presence of a brain mass, an insistent headache that doesn’t respond to pain medications offers a heads-up that this scenario, while unlikely, is possible.

“The early symptoms of a brain tumor can be very vague,” says Lawrence Daniels, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital. “But a headache that persists, like Matthew’s which was treated but didn’t get better, warrants further investigation. Some headaches related to brain tumors are also worse in the morning and get better during the day.”

A tumor that starts in the brain (and doesn’t spread there from another part of the body) is known as a primary brain tumor. More than 130 types of these tumors—which can be cancerous or benign—have been identified, and about 80,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a primary brain tumor every year, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

What to Watch

Benign brain tumors can be just as challenging to treat as many cancerous ones, so detecting a brain tumor early in its development can help improve outcomes, Dr. Daniels says. Symptoms also depend on a tumor’s size, type and location.

What are the early signs of a brain tumor? Here’s what to watch for:

  • Seizures
  • Twitching or muscle-jerking
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with walking or balance
  • Tingling, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs
  • Changes in speaking, seeing or hearing
  • Changes in mood, personality or concentration
  • Memory problems

About three of every 10 people with a brain tumor are diagnosed after experiencing a seizure, making this another major clue, according to the NIH.

“Headache is the hallmark symptom,” Dr. Daniels says, “but any sudden weakness or any headache associated with nausea and vomiting is suspicious. Increased clumsiness when walking or with the coordination of your hands and arms are also things we see.”

Making the Diagnosis

If you or your loved one has symptoms suggesting a brain tumor, see your doctor. After taking a thorough medical history and performing a physical, doctors typically rule out other illnesses that might be causing symptoms before zeroing in on a brain tumor diagnosis.

Finding a tumor typically requires imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans. And don’t wait, Dr. Daniels advises. Any alarming symptom such as sudden weakness should prompt immediate medical attention, and a headache lasting more than a few days should also be investigated.

“If you have some of these symptoms, you should definitely seek the attention of your physician,” he says, “because if we’re dealing with a tumor that’s smaller and less involved, it’s easier to treat than a larger, more extensive tumor.”

Next Steps and Resources:

  • If you are experiencing symptoms that suggest a brain tumor, speak with your doctor immediately. If you don't have a primary care provider, find one and make an appointment today.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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