Adult Brain Tumors

Learn about the different types of benign brain tumors and their symptoms.

Benign Brain Tumors

Medical Author: Charles Davis, MD, PhD
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Benign brain tumors are usually defined as a group of similar cells that do not follow normal cell division and growth patterns and develop into a mass of cells that microscopically do not have the characteristic appearance of a cancer. Most benign brain tumors are found by CTor MRIbrain scans. These tumors usually grow slowly, do not invade surrounding tissues or spread to other organs, and often have a border or edge that can be seen on CT scans. These tumors rarely develop into metastatic (cancerous or spreading) tumors. Most benign brain tumors can be removed; the benign tumors usually do not reoccur after removal. The exact causes of benign brain tumors are not known, but investigators have suggested that family history, radiation exposure, or exposure to chemicals (for example, vinyl chloride, formaldehyde) may be risk factors.

Benign brain tumors, however, can be life threatening because they can compress brain tissue and other structures inside the skull, so the term "benign" can be misleading. Terminology is further complicated by some investigators who classify low-grade cancerous tumors as either "benign" or "relatively benign." Regardless, compression of brain tissue or its additional structures (for example, nerves, ventricles) by a tumor mass is a major cause of the symptoms seen with benign (and malignant) tumors.

Adult brain tumor facts*

*Adult brain tumor facts medical author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

  • The brain is a soft mass of tissue that has three major parts, the cerebrum, cerebellum and the brain stem, all of which are effectively surrounded and protected by the bones of the skull; the brain is the tissue that controls people's voluntary and involuntary actions (that is, bodily functions, thoughts, and sensations).
  • Cancer is the unregulated growth of abnormal cells in the body (cancer cells are also termed malignant cells).
  • Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells; benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells but do contain abnormally growing and dividing cells that do not metastasize (spread to other organs) but may still cause problems, often because of their size and are regulated to grow in a specific area.
  • Primary brain tumors are composed of abnormal types of brain cells with unregulated growth; the most common type is termed gliomas that arise from brain glial cells, but there are many other types (for example, astrocytomas, ependymomas, medulloblastomas and oligodendrogliomas).
  • Secondary brain tumors are tumors comprised of cells from other organs where cancers have started and then spread through the bloodstream to the brain tissue.
  • The exact cause of brain tumors is unknown; however, people at higher risk for them are children and the elderly, white males, people with family members that have brain tumors, radiation exposure, and exposures to many different chemicals.
  • Symptoms of brain tumors, many of which are non-specific and occur in other diseases, may include headaches, nausea, vomiting, speech, hearing or vision changes, memory problems, personality changes and paresthesias (an abnormal sensation of the skin such as numbness, tingling, prickling, burning, or creeping on the skin that has no objective cause).
  • Brain tumors are diagnosed preliminarily by many methods including detailed physical exam, CT and/or MRI exams, angiograms, and X-rays; definitive diagnosis is by removing tissue from the tumor (tumor biopsy) and examining the cells microscopically.
  • Treatment choices for a brain tumor depends on joint decisions made by the patient and the patient's physician team (team members may include oncologists, neurosurgeons, and others the patient may choose, including other doctors who may give a second opinion); treatment methods are based on the individual's disease and may consist of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, combinations of these methods or no treatment.
  • Side effects of treatments are common and numerous but vary from patient to patient depending on the disease, method(s) used and the effectiveness of medications and other methods to reduce them; some of the most common side effects are weakness, nausea, edema, skin changes and hair loss but may include more serious problems such as infections, seizures, disabilities such as speech problems, mental changes and occasionally, death.
  • Rehabilitation is frequently included in the treatment plan; specialists like physical, occupational and speech therapists can help the patient improve.
  • Follow-up appointments are part of the treatment plan for brain tumors to catch any recurrent disease and to help with rehabilitation treatments.
  • Support groups are available to patients with brain tumors and to patients who have and are undergoing treatments; for example, the American Cancer Society, American Brain Tumor Society.

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