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Symptoms of Brain Tumors

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Brain tumor symptoms vary depending on characteristics of the tumor and its location within the brain. If you have a small slow-growing brain tumor, you may experience no symptoms, whereas with a more rapidly growing tumor, you may notice symptoms suddenly without warning.

The first symptoms of a brain tumor can be vague and nonspecific. Depending on their location, tumors may cause signs that are focal (located in a specific part of the body) or generalized (affecting the whole or larger part of the body). For example, generalized signs, such as headaches, do not have a direct association with a particular part of the brain and are not a reason to think you have a brain tumor. On the other hand, focal signs, like peripheral vision loss in both eyes, are easier to associate with specific parts of the brain and are more helpful to determine the location of a tumor, sometimes even before imaging scans are done.

Here we will discuss symptoms commonly associated with brain tumors and how they can improve early detection.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Brain Tumor?

There are several warning signs that may indicate the presence of a brain tumor. However, these signs can also be caused by other conditions, such as a headache or a seizure disorder. Also remember that although brain tumors occur more often in adults, brain tumor symptoms in teenagers and younger children are very similar to those in older people.

Headache is one of the most common symptoms that people with brain tumors will experience. Headaches are very common in the general population, affecting 35% to 90% of us. Because headaches have many possible causes, they do not necessarily mean you have a serious problem. Although many people who have a brain tumor often have headaches (between 33% and 71% of patients), most people with headaches do not have brain tumors.

The classic headache associated with brain tumors is described as a mild to severe headache that worsens in the morning and when you bend forward. However, one study found only 36% of brain tumor patients experienced this classic brain tumor headache. Sometimes, people mistakenly believe symptoms caused by a migraine headache could be a sign of a brain tumor. To help you differentiate their signs, Table 1 provides a comparison of characteristics of headache associated with brain tumors and migraine headache.

Table 1: Comparison of headache characteristics.
  Brain Tumor Migraine Headache

New onset of frequent headaches different from previous headaches

Recurring, similar to previous headaches
Location Bilateral (both sides) Unilateral (one side)
Duration Constant, unrelenting, worsens early in the morning or late at night Lasts for hours to days 
Quality Dull, pressure-type, sharp pain Dull, throbbing
Association Nausea, vomiting, weakness, vision changes, numbness and tingling Nausea, vomiting, light or sound sensitivity, aura (vision changes, smells)

Although headache is often one of the first warning signs of brain cancer, it is rarely the only symptom you will have before seeking medical attention. Besides headaches, other common symptoms include severe nausea, vomiting, seizures, personality changes, and other signs associated with brain tumor locations (see Figure 1 which shows the regions of the brain). For example, tumors in the frontal lobes may cause difficulties with speech and muscle weakness, whereas tumors in the temporal lobes may cause seizures and problems with speech and memory.

Cerebellar tumors commonly cause difficulty with movement and balance, tumors of the occipital lobes cause vision problems. While certain locations within the brain can cause characteristic symptom patterns, you may also experience generalized symptoms like fatigue, lack of motivation, and weight loss. Advanced brain tumor symptoms are more likely to include seizures, difficulty with speech, and dizziness or unsteadiness on your feet.

                                            Figure 1: Regions of the brain.

Figure 1: Regions of the brain.

Early Detection of Brain Tumors

A common question posed by patients and caregivers includes, “How long before brain tumor symptoms show?” The truth is that detecting the early signs of brain tumors relies on the ability to recognize the early warning signs and symptoms associated with brain tumors. This can be challenging because these are usually vague symptoms such as headache and fatigue. Other common early warning signs of a brain tumor include muscle weakness, numbness, neck pain, seizures, aphasia (difficulty speaking or understanding speech), hearing or vision loss, or problems with thinking, learning, and memory.

Although any of these symptoms could indicate you have a brain tumor, in many cases a brain tumor is not the cause of the symptoms. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the signs. Start by seeing your primary care provider, who can order one of the tests that are used for early detection of brain tumors. These include:

  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help to detect brain tumors. These tests create detailed images of the brain that can show the size, location, and the most likely type of tumor.
  • Neurological exams: A neurological exam can be performed by a doctor to assess your ability to think, speak, move, and feel. Changes in these abilities can indicate the presence of a brain tumor.

  • Biopsy: A biopsy involves removing a small sample of tissue from the tumor for examination under a microscope. A biopsy can help to determine the type of brain tumor and guide treatment decisions.

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can help to check for the presence of specific markers that are associated with certain types of brain tumors.

  • Vision and hearing tests: Changes in vision and hearing can indicate the presence of a brain tumor, and tests such as an ophthalmological exam or audiogram can help to assess these changes.

These tests may not always provide answers right away, and a diagnosis may need a combination of tests and a thorough evaluation by medical specialists. Early detection of a brain tumor is important for improving the chances of successful treatment. If you experience any symptoms that suggest a brain tumor, it is important to see a doctor promptly.

Do Brain Tumor Symptoms Come on Suddenly?

Depending on the type of tumor and its location within the brain, brain tumor symptoms can come on quickly. For example, tumors in the frontal lobes are more likely to cause subtle personality changes that may not be immediately noticeable. Also, slow-growing, low-grade tumors may allow your healthy brain tissue to accommodate the tumor. As a result, symptoms may occur gradually over months or even years.

On the other hand, fast-growing, high-grade tumors are more likely to produce symptoms quickly — within days or weeks. The rapid growth of these malignant tumors within the brain can put pressure on normal structures. Because these changes happen fast, you will notice symptoms quickly.

Key Takeaways

  • Brain tumor symptoms vary depending on characteristics of the tumor and its location within the brain.
  • Headache is a common symptom of brain tumors; however, they are associated with a wide variety of conditions and are not specific to brain tumors alone.
  • Other symptoms of brain tumors include severe nausea, vomiting, seizures, personality changes, difficulties with speech, muscle weakness, vision or hearing loss, and problems with learning or memory.
  • Early detection of brain tumors requires understanding and recognition of the above symptoms.
  • Factors such as brain tumor location, size, and growth rate all influence the severity of brain tumor symptoms and when they are first noticed.