What Are the Symptoms of a Brain Stem Tumor?

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  • Written By: M. DePietro
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 01 August 2014
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A brain stem tumor is an abnormal growth that occurs in the posterior area of the brain, known as the brain stem. Symptoms can vary, depending on the size of the tumor and location in the brain stem. Often, symptoms may include headache, nausea, possibly with vomiting, and vision disturbances, such as double vision. Additional symptoms are possible and include trouble walking, speech problems, and trouble swallowing.

Brain stem tumors are classified as either benign tumors or malignant tumors. Benign tumors do not spread to others areas of the brain. Malignant brain stem tumors can travel to other areas of the brain and spinal cord. Both types of brain stem tumors cause similar symptoms.

The two main types of malignant brain tumors are pontine tumors and medullary gliomas. These two types of tumors may produce different symptoms due to their location on the brain stem. Pontine brain stem tumors can cause trouble swallowing and closing of the eyelids, along with problems chewing. Medullary glioma brain stem tumors may cause problems with walking and balance due to leg weakness.

People of any age can develop a brain stem tumor, but these are more frequency diagnosed in children. Both children and adults tend to have similar symptoms. The rate at which symptoms develop or progress can vary.

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Some people will have slight symptoms for many months that may barely be noticeable. Other people may develop symptoms all of a sudden that seem to increase quickly. When symptoms appear suddenly, they tends to be from a fast-growing, high-grade brain stem tumor.

The goal when treating a brain stem tumor is to get rid of the abnormal growth, however, managing symptoms is also a consideration. Since the location in the brain often makes surgical removal of the tumor too dangerous, other treatments are used. Radiation treatment can sometime be effective in treating symptoms. In the best cases, radiation can destroy the entire tumor. In other situations, radiation may at least reduce tumor size and decrease symptoms.

Additional ways to decrease symptoms associated with a brain stem tumor include administering medications. Steroids are often given to reduce swelling in the brain. As the swelling decreases, symptoms lessen. Steroids often have side effects, such as irritability, increased appetite, and weight gain.

In some cases, symptoms resolve with treatment. In other instances, symptoms may be permanent due to damage caused by the brain tumor. Treatment, such as radiation therapy, may also sometimes result in permanent symptoms.

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