Brain and spinal tumours

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Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord cancer

A sign is something that can be observed and recognized by a doctor or healthcare professional (for example, a rash). A symptom is something that only the person experiencing it can feel and know (for example, pain or tiredness). The signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord cancer can also be caused by other health conditions. It is important to have any unusual symptoms checked by a doctor.

Signs and symptoms will vary depending on the location of the tumour in the brain or spinal cord and are the same for benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumours. Signs and symptoms appear when the tumour is large enough to disturb the functioning of the brain or spinal cord.

Brain tumours

Brain tumours may not cause any signs or symptoms in their early stages. The signs and symptoms may appear suddenly or may develop gradually and become worse over time. Symptoms appear once the tumour:

  • grows into surrounding brain tissues and disturbs the normal functioning of that area
  • causes brain swelling that increases the pressure inside the skull (intracranial pressure)
  • pushes parts of the brain into other areas of the brain (herniation)
  • blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)

Signs and symptoms of brain tumours include:

  • headache
    • worse in the morning
    • may go away after vomiting
  • seizures
  • digestive problems
    • nausea
    • vomiting
    • loss of appetite
  • changes in:
    • personality
    • emotions
    • thinking
    • mood
    • memory
    • behaviour
    • ability to concentrate
    • judgment and reasoning abilities
    • social skills
  • abnormal movements and body positions
  • trouble walking or with other daily functions, such as eating
  • weakness (may be on one side of the body)
    • facial muscles
    • arms
    • legs
  • trouble swallowing
  • difficulty speaking or understanding words
  • vision problems
    • blurred vision
    • double vision
    • loss of vision
  • hearing problems
  • dizziness
  • balance problems
  • drowsiness
  • fatigue
  • numbness in part of the body
  • confusion or disorientation
  • coma

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Spinal cord tumours

The signs and symptoms of spinal cord tumours depend on how fast the tumour is growing and the area of the spinal cord affected.

  • Slow-growing tumours have few signs and symptoms at first because the spinal cord adjusts to the size of the tumour.
  • Fast-growing tumours cause signs and symptoms early because the spinal cord cannot adjust to the sudden increase in the size of the tumour.

Signs and symptoms of spinal cord tumours include:

  • back or neck pain
    • may radiate to the arms or legs
    • can be mild to severe
    • can be dull, sharp or burning
    • may be worse at night
  • weakness
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • muscle wasting
  • feeling cold
  • changes in:
    • posture
    • coordination
  • difficulty walking
  • bladder problems
    • intense need to urinate (urgency)
    • inability to urinate
    • inability to completely empty the bladder
    • loss of bladder control (incontinence)
  • bowel problems
    • constipation
    • loss of bowel control (incontinence)
  • Brown-Séquard syndrome with symptoms that include:
    • loss of the sense of touch, vibration, position and motor ability on the same side of the body as the tumour
    • loss of the sense of pain and temperature on the opposite side of the body as the tumour
  • spinal cord compression

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cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)

The fluid in the cavities in and around the brain and spinal cord that helps protect and cushion these organs.


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