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04 May 2022

Brain tumors: types, symptoms, & treatments

symptoms 3 minutes reading time

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass of abnormal cells in your brain.1 About 71% of brain tumors are benign (noncancerous) and about 29% are malignant (cancerous).2 Benign brain tumors are typically slow-growing and have clean, smooth borders. In contrast, malignant brain tumors look irregular, and grow quickly and aggressively, invading nearby tissue.

The brain’s anatomy is vast and complex, and tumors can develop in any part of the brain itself, or the skull. Primary brain tumors develop in the brain, whereas secondary (metastatic) brain tumors develop elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain. In adults, primary brain tumors are less common than secondary ones.

Brain tumors affect about 30 of every 100,000 adults.3 Brain structures and organs are packed tightly together, so even benign tumors can be life-threatening if they compress parts of the brain or impact vital functions.

Types of brain tumors

There are over 120 types of known brain tumors. Here are some common examples of both benign and malignant brain tumors.

Typically benign tumors:

  • Meningiomas are the most common type of head tumor. They are approximately twice as common in women and often grow slowly and without symptoms.
    • Meningiomas can cause sensory changes (blurred or double vision, tinnitus or hearing loss, loss of smell), headaches that are worse in the morning, seizures, weakness of the arms or legs, and memory or language difficulty. 
  • Schwannomas are tumors that come from any of the cranial nerves. Acoustic neuromas (vestibular schwannomas) grow slowly along the vestibular canal of your inner ear.
    • Common symptoms of schwannomas are things like loss of balance, tinnitus, muscle numbness or weakness, burning nighttime neck pain, and, in some cases, a visible lump.4
  • Pituitary adenomas form on the pituitary gland and can affect your body’s hormone production.
    • Pituitary adenomas can cause visual changes, headaches, fatigue, and heat intolerance. Functioning (hormone-producing) pituitary tumors can cause menstrual irregularities, infertility, and erectile dysfunction. They can also cause excess production of prolactin, the breast milk hormone, which can cause you to lactate even if you're not pregnant or actively breastfeeding.

Typically malignant tumors:

  • Gliomas are among the most common brain tumors, accounting for about 30% of all brain tumors and most fast-growing brain tumors.5 They begin in nerve-supporting cells, generally forming along the spinal cord or brain, and include tumors like astrocytomas, ependymomas, oligodendrogliomas, and glioblastomas.
    • Gliomas can cause headaches, nausea, urinary incontinence, seizures, imbalance, personality changes, memory loss, confusion, and speech difficulties.
  • Metastatic brain tumors, or secondary tumors, are about four times more common than primary brain tumors and grow much faster comparatively.
    • Metastatic brain tumors are known to cause symptoms like headaches with nausea and/or vomiting, seizures, cognitive declines (think speech and comprehension), and physical weakness or paralysis.

Common brain tumor signs & symptoms

Brain tumor signs and symptoms vary widely depending on the tumor’s location, size, growth rate, and level of malignancy. A tumor pressing on the optic nerve, for example, will naturally cause different side effects than a tumor in the part of the brain that governs personality. Many of these symptoms can (and often do) have other explanations or causes.

Commonly reported brain tumor symptoms include:

  • Headaches that may cause nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Sensory changes, especially in vision (loss of or double vision), hearing, or smell.
  • Coordination and balance problems.
  • Memory loss and/or disorientation.
  • Inability to speak normally.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • One-sided numbness or tingling.
  • Personality changes.

How are brain tumors treated?

Brain tumor treatment is ultimately determined by a number of factors, including the tumor's malignancy, pathology, symptomatology, aggressiveness, and geography (some tumors cannot be fully removed surgically without damaging nearby structures).

Some benign tumors will never grow, change, or cause any symptoms. Doctors will often utilize a watch-and-wait approach in those situations. Benign tumors that do grow, change, cause symptoms, or detrimentally impact neighboring brain structures will sometimes require surgical removal.

Many malignant tumors are treated with surgical removal as a first line of defense. Radiation, chemotherapy, and precision medicine can augment surgical removal and improve outcomes and survival rates.

Supportive prescription medicine care can mitigate side effects from treatments like chemotherapy. Palliative care like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and selective diets may also be supportive in some cases.

How are brain tumors detected?

Brain tumors are usually diagnosed using a three-prong approach:

  1. Neurological exam;
  2. Diagnostic imaging scan (CT scans, MRIs, and occasionally X-rays), and
  3. Biopsy.

Where to get a brain tumor scan

If your doctor has recommended medical imaging for brain tumor detection or treatment, head to scan.com’s easy-to-use scan search tool to find a scan location near you.


  1. mayoclinic.org: Brain tumor - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic

  2. braintumor.org: Quick Brain Tumor Facts

  3. hopkinsmedicine.org: Brain Tumors and Brain Cancer | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  4. clevelandclinic.org: Brain Cancer & Brain Tumor: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

  5. cancer.org: Types of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults

  6. mskcc.org: Signs & Symptoms of Metastatic Brain Tumors | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

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