Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

Brain and spinal cord tumors are abnormal growths of tissue. They are found inside the skull or backbone (spinal column). These are the primary parts of the central nervous system (CNS). Malignant tumors are cancerous. Benign tumors are not. The CNS is housed within rigid, bony spaces (skull and spinal column). Any abnormal growth can place pressure on sensitive tissues. This could impair function. Tumors that begin in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumors.


  • Most primary tumors are caused by out-of-control growth. This occurs among cells that surround and support neurons (nerve cells that send messages through your body).

  • Primary tumors may result from specific genetic disease (neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis). They may also result from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals.

  • The cause of most primary tumors is not known.

  • Primary tumors are not contagious (cannot be caught from another person). At this time, they are not preventable.


Symptoms of brain tumors include:

  • Headaches.

  • Convulsions (seizures).

  • Feeling sick to your stomach (nausea).

  • Vomiting.

  • Thinking (cognitive) problems.

  • Hearing or visual impairment.

  • Behavior problems.

  • Difficulty with movement (motor skills).

  • Problems with balance.

Symptoms of spinal cord tumors include:

  • Pain.

  • Changes in the way you feel things (sensory changes).

  • Difficulty with movement (motor skills).


  • The first test to diagnose brain and spinal cord tumors is a neurological exam (nervous system function test).

  • Special imaging techniques may also be used, such as:

  • CT scan (computed tomography).

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography).

  • Laboratory tests may be done, including EEG (electroencephalogram) and spinal tap (taking a sample of spinal fluid).

  • Caregivers may take a tissue sample (biopsy). This is a surgical procedure. A sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, to help make a diagnosis.


The 3 most commonly used treatments are:

  • Surgery.

  • Radiation.

  • Chemotherapy.

Caregivers may also prescribe steroids, to reduce swelling inside the CNS.


Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors generally develop slowly. They get worse over time, unless they are treated. The tumor may be classified as benign or malignant. It may be given a numbered score to show how quickly it will progress. This score can help caregivers determine how to treat the tumor and to predict the likely outcome for the patient.