Symptoms and Risk


There are few known risk factors for brain and spinal tumors. However, some things can raise the risk:

Radiation Exposure

For the most part, this cause of elevated risk is having been treated with radiation for another cancer of the head or spine. Radiation-induced tumors are fairly rare, but clinicians are aware of the possibility and give radiation therapy after weighing benefits and risks. For most people, the potential benefit far outweighs the risk.

Family History

In rare cases, brain and spinal tumors run in families. Some of the conditions with the highest risks for these conditions include:

Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1): Type 1 (NF1) is among the world’s most common genetic disorders, occurring in about one of every 3,000 births. Also known as von Recklinghausen disease, this genetic disorder is the most common syndrome linked to brain or spinal cord neurofibromas, benign tumors that grow on nerves throughout the body. Optic nerve gliomas, benign brain tumors that grow on the nerves that carry vision from the eyes to the brain, are found in one in five children with NF1.

Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2): NF2 affects one in 40,000 individuals worldwide. It is clinically distinct from NF1 and is ten times less common. Individuals with NF2 will not develop NF1, and those people born with NF1 will not progress to NF2. It often leads to the development of multiple tumors of the nervous system: schwannomas, meningiomas, and certain types of gliomas, as well as neurofibromas. These tumors can result in blindness, deafness, paralysis and other neurologic problems.

Tuberous sclerosis: People with this condition may develop low-grade astrocytomas beneath the ependymal cells of the brain’s ventricles. They may also have other benign tumors of the brain, skin, heart, kidneys, and other organs.

Von Hippel-Lindau disease: People with this condition tend to develop benign or cancerous tumors in different parts of the body, including blood vessel tumors in the brain, spinal cord, or retina, as well as tumors of the inner ear, kidney, adrenal gland, and pancreas.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome: This condition creates a higher risk for developing gliomas.

While the risk of many adult cancers can be reduced with positive lifestyle changes, there are no known preventive strategies against developing brain and spine tumors.

Consider having a hereditary cancer risk assessment if:

  • You have a family history of cancer and want to learn more specifics about that risk.
  • Have a family member with inherited cancer.

Symptoms to Watch For:

The most common symptoms of brain tumors include:

  • Headaches, usually worse in the morning.
  • Trouble thinking or remembering.
  • Trouble talking.
  • Change in personality.
  • Seizures or convulsions, causing weakness, numbness or loss of consciousness.
  • Vision problems.
  • Paralysis or weakness on one side of the body.
  • Loss of balance or coordination.
  • Loss of hearing in one ear.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting, usually worse in the morning.

Spinal Tumors May Have These Symptoms:

  • Loss of sensation in other parts of the body.
  • Back pain.
  • Urinary incontinence.
  • Weakness.
  • Loss of muscle control.

Brain and spinal tumors are not routinely screened for. However, if you have any of the symptoms above, talk to your doctor to get to the cause.