Tests for 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
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.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Diagnosing brain tumours section.
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 is called a neurological examination. It involves a number of simple tests. Your doctor may 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
- See if you have any areas of numbness
- Test your reflexes by tapping your knee with a rubber hammer
- Check if there are any weaknesses in the muscles of your face, eyes and tongue
- Look into the back of your eyes to see if there are any changes caused by increased pressure in the brain
- Ask you some questions to see how you follow commands, what your memory is like and can you read and write.
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.
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 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.
Specialised MRI scans called magnetic resonance angiography (MRA scans) can show the blood vessels in the brain. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS scans) look at chemicals in the tumour. Perfusion MRI scans look at the blood flow in different parts of the brain and diffusion (DTI) how the parts of the brain are connected and if these connections are damaged.
Another type of MRI scan is called a functional MRI (fMRI). During this scan the doctor will ask you to do things like move your hand, speak or read. These scans are used to help plan surgery when the tumour is close to an area controlling one of these functions.
You may need to have more than one MRI as your specialist gathers information about your condition. There is information about having an MRI in the section about cancer tests.
It is very important to tell your doctor if you have any metal inside your body (such as a pacemaker or metal from welding in your eye) as this may mean you cannot have an MRI scan. Most modern joint replacements are OK. But always check with your specialist. We have detailed information about having an MRI scan.
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).
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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