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Tests for brain tumours

Men and women discussing brain tumours

This page tells you what may happen if you or your doctor suspect you could have a brain tumour. There are sections about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Tests for brain tumours

Some people begin by seeing their GP if they have had symptoms for a while such as headaches that are getting worse. Your doctor will examine you and ask you about your symptoms and general health. They will ask you to have a physical examination, including a test of your nervous system (a neurological examination). 

A neurological examination includes looking into your eyes, testing your reflexes, testing your senses and coordination, and asking simple questions to test your memory. 

Some people have symptoms that come on quite suddenly such as a severe headache and drowsiness or a fit (seizure). In this case you would normally be taken to an Accident and Emergency department. There you will have a physical and neurological examination. 

If your GP or the Accident and Emergency department doctor think that your symptoms could possibly be caused by a brain tumour they will refer you to a brain tumour specialist in a hospital.

At the hospital

Your specialist or a specialist nurse will repeat the physical and neurological examination. You will have blood tests to check your general health. You may also have a brain CT scan or an MRI scan of the brain. Before these scans you usually have an injection of dye called contrast medium. This circulates in the bloodstream to your brain and makes the pictures of the brain clearer.

Your specialist may also need to examine your breasts, tummy (abdomen), skin or back passage (rectum). This is to make sure there are no obvious signs of a cancer elsewhere in your body that could have spread to the brain.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Diagnosing brain tumours section.

 

 

At the GP surgery or A+E department

Some people begin by seeing their GP if they have had symptoms for a while such as headaches that are getting worse. Your doctor will examine you and ask you about your symptoms. This will include what they are, when you get them and whether anything you do makes them better or worse.

Your doctor will also ask about your general health. They will ask you to have a physical examination, including a test of your nervous system (a neurological examination). 

Some people have symptoms that come on quite suddenly such as a severe headache and drowsiness or a fit (seizure). In this case you would normally be taken to an Accident and Emergency (A+E) department. There you will have a physical and neurological examination. 

If your GP or the Accident and Emergency department doctor think that your symptoms could possibly be caused by a brain tumour they will refer you quickly to a brain tumour specialist in a hospital.

 

Testing your nervous system

Testing your nervous system is called a neurological examination. It involves a number of simple tests. Your doctor will do the following.

  • Test your muscle strength by asking you to squeeze their hand with each of yours or push against their hand with your feet
  • Test your reflexes, tapping your knee with a rubber hammer
  • Look into your eyes to see if there are any changes that could be caused by increased pressure in the brain
  • Shine a light at your eyes to see if your pupils react
  • Ask you to follow a moving finger with your eyes

Your doctor may also do the following tests.

  • Check to see that you have normal sensation (feeling) throughout your body
  • Ask about your hearing and sight
  • Get you to walk in a straight line or stand on one leg
  • Ask you to touch your nose with your finger while your eyes are shut
  • Ask you to answer simple questions
  • Ask you to remember a short list for a few minutes and repeat it back
  • Ask about your general health, including periods for women, or general growth and development (including puberty) for children
 

In the hospital

The hospital specialist will ask you about your medical history, symptoms and your general health. They will then do another neurological examination. You will also need to have one or more of the following tests.

 

Blood tests

You may have blood tests to check for specific chemical markers in the blood. Some tumours, such as pineal region tumours or germ cell tumours may change the level of particular hormones and your doctor will check for these.

 

CT scan

A CT scan is a computerised scan using X-rays. Brain tumours usually show up on this type of scan. You may have a CT scan of the brain. When you have your CT scan, you have an injection during or just before the scan. This is called a contrast medium. It is a dye that circulates in your bloodstream to the brain and makes the CT pictures of the brain clearer. We have detailed information about having a CT scan in the section about cancer tests.

 

MRI brain scan

MRI scans use magnetic fields to create a picture of body structures. These scans usually give a very clear picture of the brain and will almost certainly show up any brain tumour that is present. You usually have an injection of contrast medium to make the scan clearer.

It is very important to tell your doctor if you have any metal inside your body as this may mean you cannot have an MRI scan. We have detailed information about having an MRI scan.

 

Physical examination

Your doctor may need to examine your breasts, tummy (abdomen), skin or back passage (rectum). This is because they need to make sure there is no obvious sign of a cancer somewhere else in your body (a primary cancer). It is more common for an adult to have a cancer that has spread to the brain from somewhere else (a secondary brain tumour) than a tumour that starts in the brain (a primary brain tumour).

 

Getting your results

Waiting for test results is always an anxious time. It may take several working days to get the results of biopsies or scans. You can ask a member of your treatment team when you should expect your results. 

While you are waiting for the results it may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel. Or you may want to contact a cancer support group to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum.

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Updated: 12 December 2013