Cancers and Tumors

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

Our brain and spinal cord (central nervous system or CNS) are the control center for all aspects of our body. So tumors in the brain or spinal cord can have a wide range of effects. Brain and spinal cord tumors can affect your child’s thoughts, senses, learning, memory, feelings, movement and organs.

The symptoms your child has will depend on factors like the type of tumor, where it is in the brain and how much it has spread. Usually, brain and spinal cord tumor symptoms develop gradually. Sometimes they start suddenly.

These are some of the symptoms that may occur in a child who has a brain or spinal cord tumor. The same symptoms can also be caused by other health problems. It’s important for a child with symptoms like these to see a doctor to find out the cause.

  • Trouble with movements, such as walking or writing
  • Loss of balance
  • Being numb or weak in part of the body or unable to move part of the body
  • Slow speech or trouble speaking
  • Changes in vision, hearing or other senses
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache in the morning or headache that goes away after vomiting
  • Feeling sleepy for no reason or having a change in energy
  • Changes in personality, mood or behavior
  • Seizures
  • Weight loss or gain for no reason

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumor Diagnosis

To find out whether your child has a brain or spinal cord tumor, the doctor may want your child to have pictures taken of the inside of their head or spine, such as a CT (computed tomography) scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan or an X-ray.

These are called “imaging studies,” and they create a picture of the brain or spine so the doctor can look for signs of a problem.

Your child may also need these tests:

  • EEG (electroencephalogram) to find problems with electrical activity in the brain
  • Examination of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to look for cancer cells

For a clear diagnosis, doctors may need to perform a biopsy. This helps tell whether a tumor is cancer and what type of tumor it is.

At Seattle Children’s we can biopsy tumors in parts of the brain that are difficult to reach, such as the brainstem. Not all hospitals can do this. We use stereotactic biopsy techniques. Using CT and MRI scans, neurosurgeons make a 3D map of your child’s brain and tumor location. Through a small incision and small hole in the skull, they insert a thin biopsy needle into the tumor to remove a sample of cells for testing.

Based on what they see, doctors may “grade” your child’s tumor. A higher-grade tumor is one that grows faster. A lower-grade tumor grows more slowly. However, it may still be serious even if it’s a lower-grade tumor.

“Staging” of a tumor includes testing to see whether the tumor is localized or has spread (metastatic). For tumors of the CNS, staging includes an MRI of the whole brain and spine. Depending on the type of tumor, your doctor may do a lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap), using a needle to remove fluid from the spinal column so it can be checked for tumor cells.

Contact Us

To make an appointment with a Seattle Children’s provider, you can be referred by your child’s primary care provider (or another specialist), or you can call us directly at 206-987-2106.