Controlling symptoms of brain tumours

Brain tumours can cause symptoms such as headaches, feeling or being sick and seizures (fits). The symptoms you have depend on where in the brain the tumour is, its size and whether it has spread.

One way of controlling your symptoms is with surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. These treatments can reduce the size of the tumour and help you feel better.

You might also have drugs to:

  • help control seizures (fits)
  • reduce the swelling inside your brain
  • control the pain

Drugs to help control seizures

Seizures are bursts of electrical activity in the brain. They are a common symptom of brain tumours. There are different types of seizures, including:

  • focal onset which only affects one part of the brain
  • generalised onset which affects both sides of the brain at the same time and you can become unconscious for a short time
  • unknown onset when it’s not known where they started

Seizures can also be grouped based on whether it involves movement or not. They can be:

  • motor onset which involves shaking or jerking movements
  • non motor onset when you become unaware of what is around you (vacant), or have a feeling of having done something before, odd smells or tastes

You usually have drugs such as phenytoin, sodium valproate and carbamazepine to control seizures. These are called anti epileptic drugs. You usually have them as tablets or liquids that you swallow every day. It’s important that you take the drugs according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Seizures can be quite scary for you and the people around to you. Your treatment team can talk you through what might happen and what to do if you have them.

Drugs to reduce the swelling inside your brain

Some brain tumours cause swelling. This can increase the pressure inside the brain and cause symptoms. Certain treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy can also increase the swelling in the brain at first.

Steroids are naturally made by our bodies in small amounts. They help to control many functions including reducing swelling.

The type of steroids you might have as part of your treatment are called corticosteroids. It includes:

  • dexamethasone
  • prednisolone
  • methylprednisolone

Drugs to control the pain

Brain tumours can cause headaches if they are pressing in areas of the brain that are sensitive to pain. These areas include blood vessels and nerves.   

Certain treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery can also cause headaches at first.

You usually have painkillers to help with headaches. There are many types and strengths of painkillers. Your treatment team will work with you to find the right type and strength of painkiller. It’s important that you take your painkillers regularly, exactly as your doctor prescribes.

Last reviewed: 
07 Nov 2019
  • Seizures in patients with primary and metastatic brain tumors
    J Drappatz and E Avila
    UpToDate, Last accessed August 2019

  • Operational classification of seizure types by the International League Against Epilepsy: Position Paper of the ILAE Commission for the Classification and Terminology
    R Fisher and others
    Epilepsia, 2017, Vol 58, Issue 4

  • Corticosteroids in brain cancer patients: benefits and pitfalls
    J Dietrich and others
    Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, 2011. Vol 4, Issue 2, Pages 233-242

  • High-grade glioma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    R Stupp and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2014. Vol 25, Supplement 3, Pages 93-101

Related links