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Brain tumour symptoms

The most common symptoms of a brain tumour are headaches and fits (seizures). But do remember that there are much more common reasons for both these symptoms. 

Some symptoms are caused by the growing tumour causing pressure inside the skull. You may hear this called raised intracranial pressure. This causes headaches, sickness and drowsiness. It can also cause fits and problems with your eyes. A fit (seizure) can just be jerking or twitching of a hand, arm or leg. Or a fit may involve jerking of the whole body.

A brain tumour presses on the brain tissue around it so it affects the part of the body, or the body process, that is controlled by that part of the brain. This means that brain tumours can cause a very wide range of symptoms. Physical symptoms can include weakness or numbness in a particular part of the body or problems with one of your senses. Brain tumours can also cause personality changes and problems with thinking, speaking, remembering or concentrating.

 

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

 

 

Why brain tumours cause symptoms

Brain tumours cause symptoms for two reasons. Firstly, because they take up space inside the skull as they grow. Secondly, they can cause specific symptoms due to their position in the brain. There is more information below about the symptoms due to brain tumours taking up space and symptoms due to the position of the tumour.

 

The most common symptoms

The most common symptoms of brain tumours that people first go to the doctor with are headaches and fits (seizures). But do remember that brain tumours are rare and there are much more common reasons for both these symptoms. So if you have either of these, do go to the doctor as soon as possible. But remember that there is most likely another cause of the symptoms.

 

Symptoms due to increased pressure in the head

As the skull is made of bone, there is a fixed amount of space for the brain to take up. The growing tumour increases the pressure inside this fixed space. This is called raised intracranial pressure or raised ICP. The increase in pressure causes the following effects.

Headaches

It is important to remember that headaches and sickness are very common symptoms of illness. A brain tumour is not a very likely cause if these are the only symptoms you have. But you should go to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms

  • You are getting very bad headaches (especially if you wake each day with a headache)
  • You have started getting headaches but did not have them in the past
  • You are getting headaches more and more often
  • You are getting headaches and sickness together

About 1 in 3 people with a brain tumour first go to their doctor with headaches. A headache caused by a brain tumour tends to be quite bad. But in some people they can be mild at first. The headaches may last for a long time. Some people wake up each day with severe headaches that may slowly get better during the day. But anything that increases the pressure in your head can make the headache worse again, such as bending over, coughing and sneezing, exercising or even shouting.

Sickness

With a brain tumour, feeling sick (nausea) may also be worse in the morning. You may actually be sick. You may also have hiccoughs (hiccups).

Drowsiness

Drowsiness is usually a later symptom of a brain tumour. As the tumour grows and the pressure inside the head increases you may sleep more than usual. Or you may find yourself falling asleep during the day. If this is not treated, you could eventually become more difficult to wake and then become unconscious.

Raised intracranial pressure can also cause

Problems with your eyes

If you are having problems with your eyes you should see your doctor. This is particularly important if your sight seems to be failing and glasses are not helping. Other problems include blurred vision, floating shapes, tunnel vision, or a loss of vision that comes and goes. Sometimes opticians pick up these problems. It is possible to detect raised intracranial pressure during an eye examination.

Fits (seizures)

Fits are one of the most common symptoms of brain tumours. About 1 in 4 people with a brain tumour have fits when they first go to their doctor. A fit can just be jerking or twitching of a hand, arm or leg. Or a fit may affect the whole body. Some fits just cause a moment of unconsciousness. Fits can often be controlled with anti epilepsy medicines. And if your brain tumour is successfully treated, the fits may stop completely. In some cases, fits continue even after successful treatment because of scar tissue left in the brain. You may then need to carry on taking anti seizure medicines (anti epileptic drugs).

Having a fit is very frightening. There are many different causes of fits and it is important to go to your doctor if you have one.

 

Symptoms due to the position of the brain tumour

To understand why a brain tumour is causing particular symptoms, it might help to read our section about the brain. It explains what the different parts of the brain do. As a brain tumour grows, it presses on the brain tissue around it. So it affects the part of the body, or the body process, that is controlled by that part of the brain.

Here are symptoms that can be caused by tumours in different parts of the brain and the spinal cord:

Position of the tumour Symptoms
Frontal lobe
  • Changes in personality
  • Swearing or behaving in a way that you normally wouldn't (loss of inhibitions)
  • Losing interest in life (apathy)
  • Difficulty with planning and organising
  • Being irritable or aggressive
  • Weakness in part of the face, or on one side of the body
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Problems with your sight or speech
Temporal lobe
  • Forgetting words
  • Difficulty finding the correct word
  • Short term memory loss
  • Fits associated with strange feelings, smells or déjà vu (a feeling you have been somewhere or done something before)
  • Hearing voices in your head
Parietal lobe
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding what is said to you
  • Problems with reading or writing
  • Loss of feeling in part of the body
Occipital lobe
  • Sight problems or loss of vision on one side
Cerebellum (hindbrain)
  • Poor coordination
  • Uncontrolled movement of the eyes
  • Sickness
  • Neck stiffness
  • Dizziness
Brain stem
  • Poor coordination
  • Drooping eyelid or mouth on one side
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Seeing double
Spinal cord
  • Pain
  • Numbness in part of the body
  • Weakness in the legs or arms
  • Loss of control of the bladder or bowel
Pituitary gland
  • Irregular or infrequent periods
  • Infertility in men and women
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Enlarged hands and feet
Nerves controlling sight
  • Failing sight
Hearing nerves
  • Failing hearing
Meninges
  • Headache
  • Sickness
  • Sight problems
  • Problems with movement

It is important to remember that there are many other causes for the symptoms mentioned above. If you are worried you need to go to your doctor. They will send you to a specialist if they think there is any possibility that you could have a brain tumour.

Sometimes tumours in the frontal or temporal lobes of the cerebrum can become quite large with very few symptoms. In elderly people, vague symptoms of memory loss, personality changes and difficulty walking can be put down to getting older. If several symptoms like these develop over less than 6 months, it is worth checking in with your doctor.

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Updated: 11 November 2013