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6 Brain Tumor Symptoms You Should Not Ignore

Warning signs vary for the rare, but often serious, diagnosis

Human brain, illustration.
VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Brain tumors are uncommon, but the risk of being diagnosed with one increases with age.

About 72,360 Americans over age 40 will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor in 2022, according to the National Brain Tumor Society. And each year 70,000 to 170,000 people are diagnosed with secondary (metastatic) brain tumors, caused by a cancer that started elsewhere in the body, like in the lung or colon. Older adults are also at higher risk for these types of tumors because they’re more likely to have experienced cancer in their lifetime.

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What’s more, nearly half of all glioblastomas — one of the most aggressive and deadly types of brain tumor — are diagnosed in patients older than 65.

Not all brain tumors are cancerous; in fact, most aren’t. But even benign tumors can be life-threatening and can cause debilitating symptoms, such as blurry vision, hearing loss and confusion.

An individual’s prognosis depends on what type of tumor they have and how quickly it is detected, says Katy Peters, M.D., a neurologist in the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at the Duke University School of Medicine. “For most every kind of brain tumor, if you can get it out early while it’s smaller, you have a better prognosis,” she says. “We want to catch things before they cause any permanent damage.”

Symptoms vary, depending on the tumor’s location. And because brain tumors are so rare — affecting about 30 out of 100,000 American adults, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine — common warning signs can often point to other health conditions, Peters notes. She recommends talking with a doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

1. A seizure or muscle spasms

A seizure happens when something disturbs normal brain activity, and it’s often the most obvious symptom of a brain tumor, says Keith Black, M.D., chair of the department of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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Some seizures (called tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures) cause a person to cry out, fall to the floor and experience all-over muscle jerks or spasms. Other types of seizures affect only one part of the body or cause the afflicted to seem temporarily confused or unaware of what’s happening.

What a seizure looks like can vary based on where the tumor is located, Black says. If you have a tumor developing in the area of your brain that controls the left side of your body, for example, you may notice twitching only in your left arm or leg.

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Seizures usually last just a few minutes and then subside, Black says. “The key thing with a seizure is that it comes and goes.”

2. New or unusual headache

A new type of headache or one that feels localized to a specific part of your head is another early indication of a brain tumor, Peters says. She points out, however, that many other conditions can cause a headache.

Headaches caused by a tumor are often worse in the morning. “When you lay flat, there’s more pressure in your head,” Peters explains. “And then as the day goes on and you’re walking around, the pressure goes down.”

The pain caused by a tumor also tends to get worse when you cough, use the bathroom or exercise, she says, because those activities increase intercranial pressure.

3. Numbness, weakness or tingling on one side

Many people know that numbness, weakness or tingling on one side of the body can be a sign of a stroke, Black says. But they may not realize it can also indicate a brain tumor.

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One difference is that tingling caused by a tumor may come and go for months, but stroke symptoms tend to persist. Many brain tumor patients also describe “a creeping effect,” Peters says, with numbness or tingling starting in their hands and then progressing to their arm and then their shoulder.

Because the tingling is temporary and subtle, some patients don’t report it to their medical provider. “I have [brain tumor] patients all the time who give their history and say they started to have tingling three months ago or six months ago,” Black says. 

4. Confusion or loss of awareness

Sometimes brain tumors trigger a type of seizure that causes the person to zone out or become unaware of their surroundings for a short time, Peters says. Called complex partial seizures or focal impaired awareness seizures, they may not be recognized as seizures because people tend to think of the classic type that causes muscle convulsions.

Peters describes complex partial seizures this way: “You’re talking to a loved one, and all of a sudden, they are staring into space and blanked out and miss what just happened in the conversation.” Afterward, the person may seem confused and have no memory of the past few minutes.

5. Unexplained speech, vision or hearing problems

If a tumor is growing in the area that affects language and speech, you may have moments when you suddenly have trouble expressing words or understanding what is being said. If it’s growing near the visual pathways in your brain, you may experience vision problems, lose your peripheral vision on one side or see flashing lights. 

Similarly, if you lose your hearing on one side or start to develop vertigo or tinnitus, it can be a sign of a tumor pressing on your hearing or balance nerves, Black says.

6. Personality changes

Occasionally, a brain tumor causes changes to someone’s personality or behavior. If a friend or family member is acting strangely — perhaps they are more aggressive than usual or seem to be making bad decisions — that can be an early symptom of a tumor growing in the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls personality. 

Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times

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