Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults: Symptoms, Signs, Causes, Treatment Options, and Life Expectancy

What is brain tumor? What is a spinal cord tumor?

An adult central nervous system tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain and/or spinal cord.

There are many types of brain and spinal cord tumors. The tumors are formed by the abnormal growth of cells and may begin in different parts of the brain or spinal cord. Together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS).

The tumors may be either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer):

  • Benign brain and spinal cord tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues and may recur (come back).
  • Malignant brain and spinal cord tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue.

When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors cause signs and symptoms and need treatment.

Brain and spinal cord tumors can occur in both adults and children. However, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults.

Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors in adults

The signs and symptoms of adult brain and spinal cord tumors are not the same in every person.

Signs and symptoms depend on the following:

  • Where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord.
  • What the affected part of the brain controls.
  • The size of the tumor.

Signs and symptoms may be caused by CNS tumors or by other conditions, including cancer that has spread to the brain. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

Brain Tumor Symptoms

  • Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting.
  • Changes in personality, mood, ability to focus, or behavior.
  • Loss of balance and trouble walking.
  • Weakness.
  • Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level.

Spinal Cord Tumor Symptoms

  • Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs.
  • A change in bowel habits or trouble urinating.
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs.
  • Trouble walking.

Metastatic brain and spinal cord tumors in adults

Tumors that start in the brain are called primary brain tumors. Primary brain tumors may spread to other parts of the brain or to the spine. They rarely spread to other parts of the body.

Often, tumors found in the brain have started somewhere else in the body and spread to one or more parts of the brain. These are called metastatic brain tumors (or brain metastases). Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.

Up to half of metastatic brain tumors are from lung cancer. Other types of cancer that commonly spread to the brain include:

Cancer may spread to the leptomeninges (the two innermost membranes covering the brain and spinal cord). This is called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. The most common cancers that spread to the leptomeninges include:

WHO Tumor Grading System

  • Grade I (low-grade) — The tumor cells look more like normal cells under a microscope and grow and spread more slowly than grade II, III, and IV tumor cells. They rarely spread into nearby tissues. Grade I brain tumors may be cured if they are completely removed by surgery.
  • Grade II - The tumor cells grow and spread more slowly than grade III and IV tumor cells. They may spread into nearby tissue and may recur (come back). Some tumors may become a higher-grade tumor.
  • Grade III - The tumor cells look very different from normal cells under a microscope and grow more quickly than grade I and II tumor cells. They are likely to spread into nearby tissue.
  • Grade IV (high-grade) - The tumor cells do not look like normal cells under a microscope and grow and spread very quickly. There may be areas of dead cells in the tumor. Grade IV tumors usually cannot be cured.

Genetic syndromes and risks

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. There are few known risk factors for brain tumors. The following conditions may increase the risk of certain types of brain tumors:

  • Being exposed to vinyl chloride may increase the risk of glioma.
  • Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, having AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), or receiving an organ transplant may increase the risk of primary CNS lymphoma. (See the PDQ summary on Primary CNS Lymphoma for more information.)
  • Having certain genetic syndromes may increase the risk brain tumors:

The cause of most adult brain and spinal cord tumors is not known.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/11/2017

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