Signs of a brain tumor can range from the mild and subtle to the severe and life-threatening. These brain tumor symptoms may include vomiting, seizures, balance problems, dizziness, personality changes, loss of consciousness, and more.
Headaches are common in both adults and children diagnosed with a brain tumor, but headaches are not the only symptom of a brain tumor. The symptoms also may vary depending on the location of the tumor.
This article discusses brain tumor symptoms and areas of the brain where tumors occur, including some differences between children and adults. It explains why you may need to see a healthcare provider for symptoms.
Table of Contents
What Causes Symptoms
Brain tumor symptoms are associated with the part of the brain where a tumor is growing. They also can develop due to increased intracranial pressure (pressure in and around the brain).
For example, you may experience changes in vision if the tumor is in an area of the brain that controls vision. A tumor in the area of the brain that controls balance may result in lack of coordination.
Increased intracranial pressure can produce a range of symptoms that affect areas of the brain near the brain tumor, but it can also affect areas of the brain that are located relatively far from the brain tumor.
Common Brain Tumor Symptoms
Many brain tumor symptoms overlap with the symptoms of other conditions, so it's important to understand a specific symptom within a pattern of signs and your overall health.
Some of the most common symptoms, such as headaches and seizures, may occur in both adults and children.
Seizures can occur prior to a brain tumor diagnosis, and are often the first symptom of a brain tumor.
A 2019 study of 678 people diagnosed with brain tumors found seizures to be the most common sign in nearly half (45.9%) of the cases. This sign of a brain tumor is early in the diagnostic process and contributes to how a brain tumor may be treated.
Roughly half of all people with brain tumors experience headaches; in fact, data on young people with brain tumors puts the number at 60%.
Brain tumor headaches tend to be dull and persistent, with throbbing headaches occurring less often. They are often worse in the morning, when pressure on your brain is increased while sleeping, but get better throughout the day.
Additional symptoms, like vomiting, are often present. Pain may also worsen with:
- Physical activity, such as bending forward
- Sneezing or coughing
- Bearing down while having a bowel movement
These headaches may cause pain all over or pain that's worse on one side of the head. How long a brain tumor headache will last also varies from a few hours to a few days, but a consistent headache requires medical attention. So does neck pain, which is more often associated with spinal tumors.
Signs of an Emergency
- The worst headache you've ever had
- A severe headache while pregnant or after giving birth
- A severe headache with an impaired immune system due to chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, or another condition
- Sudden severe pain on only one side of your head
- A fever along with a severe headache
- A gut feeling that something is seriously wrong
Vomiting, especially in the morning, with or without nausea, can be a symptom of a brain tumor.
Vomiting due to a brain tumor is often triggered by an abrupt change in position, such as rolling over in bed.
Brain tumors can affect many thinking and problem-solving skills. Sometimes these changes can be subtle, and a person who has a brain tumor may be able to keep their job or function socially, but something just might be a bit "off."
Cognitive changes caused by brain tumors include:
- Memory: Forgetfulness or slowed processing of information might not be alarming at first, but can worsen over time as the tumor grows.
- Problem-solving: Tasks such as doing simple math, writing sentences, setting up a chessboard, or following a recipe may become challenging.
- Concentration: A person may become more easily distracted and have problems staying on task. It may take longer to complete basic tasks than usual.
- Confusion: Symptoms can vary from mild confusion, such as not understanding the nuances of a conversation, to more extreme symptoms, such as not recognizing why routine events are happening.
- Spatial problems: Problems with spatial perception may cause clumsiness, or a previously good driver may have a car accident due to changes in depth perception.
Loss of Consciousness
Increased intracranial pressure can cause loss of consciousness for a few reasons:
- It can cause progressive fatigue, leading to unconsciousness.
- Pressure on the brainstem can cause sudden loss of consciousness and may progress to a coma.
In many cases, the loss of consciousness occurs along with other symptoms, such as seizures or vomiting.
Personality or Mood Changes
Adults who have brain tumors sometimes experience personality changes. They may laugh at inappropriate times, have a sudden increased interest in sex, throw temper tantrums, become paranoid, or engage in risky behaviors.
Symptoms of a brain tumor have also been known to mimic depression.
Vision and Hearing Problems
Some brain tumors can cause visual or auditory (hearing) disturbances.
Problems with vision can include seeing flashing lights, double vision, blurring, or loss of vision that's typically in one eye or one part of your vision (visual field). Hearing changes can include one-sided hearing loss or ringing in the ears.
A brain tumor can cause the pupil in one eye to become dilated (widen) while the other remains a normal size. This symptom is considered an emergency.
Brain tumors may cause weakness on one side of the body or face, clumsiness, dizziness, loss of balance, or stumbling. Some of these symptoms are similar to those that occur with stroke.
An abnormal gait can develop, affecting the way you walk, and coordinated movements may become difficult. Trouble with swallowing may also be a symptom.
Slurring of words or difficulty speaking clearly can occur. A person who has a brain tumor may have difficulty forming or finding words, say things that make very little sense, or not be able to understand what others are saying.
Benign and Malignant Brain Tumors
Brain tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The main difference is that benign brain tumors tend to grow more slowly than malignant brain tumors, and malignant tumors are more likely than benign tumors to recur after they have been removed. The symptoms of benign and malignant tumors are very similar.
By Tumor Location
Sometimes symptoms are very specific to the location in the brain where the tumor is located.
Frontal Lobe Tumors
The frontal lobes are in the area of the brain where thinking and judgment take place. Tumors in this area can cause an intellectual decline as well as a change in personality.
Pressure on the olfactory nerve may result in a loss of the sense of smell (anosmia). The ability to speak may also be impaired (expressive aphasia).
The posterior (back) part of the frontal lobe controls strength on the opposite side of the body, so a tumor in this area can cause weakness on the opposite side of the body.
Temporal Lobe Tumors
The temporal lobes are involved in speaking and hearing. Tumors in this area can result in auditory hallucinations (hearing things), an inability to understand speech (receptive aphasia), and vision changes.
Symptoms such as deja vu experiences, depersonalization, and perceiving things as either larger or smaller than they really are may also occur.
Frontal lobe and temporal lobe tumors may cause emotional changes, such as an increase in aggressiveness.
Parietal Lobe Tumors
A tumor in the parietal lobe at the top of the brain can cause changes in sensation on the opposite side of the body. This area of the brain is also important for coordinating different parts of the brain, and tumors may cause problems with orientation (like knowing up from down) or object recognition.
People with a tumor in this region may ignore one side of their body or experience spontaneous pain.
Occipital Lobe Tumors
The occipital lobes at the back of the brain are involved in vision. Symptoms can vary from visual hallucinations to visual field defects (only seeing one or more sections of peripheral vision) to cortical blindness (vision loss despite a perfectly functioning eye).
The cerebellum at the lower back of the brain is responsible for balance and coordination. Tumors in this region may cause incoordination similar to that associated with being drunk.
These tumors also can cause difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing or brushing teeth.
The brainstem is the relay station between the upper part of the brain and the spinal cord, and it also controls vital functions such as breathing and heart rate. Tumors in this area may cause numbness or weakness on the same or opposite side of the body from the tumor.
Other symptoms include:
- Double vision
- Uneven pupils
- Droopy eyelids
Loss of consciousness may also occur, and a brain tumor in this region can be fatal. Tumors in the upper regions of the brain may cause pressure that results in brain tissue herniation, meaning the tissue is pushed into the brainstem.
Pituitary Gland Tumors
These tumors can also compress the optic nerves, leading to vision changes.
Tumor Symptoms in Children
Signs and symptoms of brain tumors in children are often the same as those in adults.
Some additional symptoms that can affect children include:
- Appetite changes
- Not reaching age-appropriate developmental milestones
- Behavior changes
- Turning the whole head to see something instead of moving the eyes
In infants, the fontanelles (soft spot on the skull where the plates have not yet closed) may bulge, and the baby may become fussy when their head is touched.
Complications are often associated with tumor enlargement, but even a small tumor can have detrimental effects if it is near structures in the body that control vital functions.
Complications of brain tumors include:
- Increased intracranial pressure: Because the skull is an enclosed, inflexible space, a growing brain tumor can lead to pressure on other areas of the brain. As brain tissue is physically squeezed, it can lose function or be pushed down toward or into the upper spinal cord. Herniation can cause dilated pupils, rapid breathing, an irregular heartbeat, and may cause death very quickly if not urgently treated.
- Hydrocephalus: Often, a brain tumor obstructs the flow of fluid in the ventricles, the spaces where fluid flows. When this occurs, intracranial pressure increases, and symptoms of confusion, vision impairment, and loss of consciousness arise. Sometimes, the ventricular obstruction cannot be relieved, so fluid must be removed; often, a ventriculoperitoneal shunt must be placed.
- Disruption of vital functions: When brain tumors affect the brainstem, they can interfere with breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure, causing sudden, dangerous changes in these vital functions. This may cause a sudden emergency or even death.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
It's important to remember that brain tumor symptoms overlap with those of many less serious problems, and most of the time, these symptoms are not indicative of a brain tumor.
That said, finding a brain tumor early increases the chance that it can be treated and reduces the chance that it will cause further damage.
Call your healthcare provider to talk about your symptoms. They will tell you if you should go to the emergency room or make an appointment for an office visit.
Brain Tumor Doctor Discussion Guide
Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take for a brain tumor to cause symptoms?
Because there are so many types of brain tumors—more than 150— the answer will vary. Symptoms depend on tumor size and location. Both benign tumors, such as chordomas, and the malignant hemangioblastomas grow slowly, so it may take some time for symptoms to emerge. Others, such as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), are aggressive and grow quickly.
Can I have a brain tumor and not know it?
It's possible to have an asymptomatic brain tumor. Some tumors grow so slowly that people live with them for years without knowing. Brain tumors also can cause symptoms that are easily mistaken for signs of other problems. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis of your symptoms if you have concerns.
Is it possible for brain tumor symptoms to come and go?
Although it's possible for some brain tumor symptoms to be sporadic at first, they are more likely to become progressively worse and more persistent as the tumor becomes larger and more invasive. Your symptoms also may change after a diagnosis and treatment.