Brain and nerve tumors are growths of abnormal cells in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that branch from the central nervous system to the body. There are many different types of brain and nerve tumors. The most common include glioblastoma, schwannoma, neurofibroma, and neurofibrosarcoma.
Primary brain and nerve tumors originate within the brain and spinal cord. Secondary tumors begin in another part of the body and spread to the brain and central nervous system. Tumors can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Some can be surgically removed, while others are inoperable. If a brain or nerve tumor is not removable, doctors will monitor it for growth and change. Tumor growth can cause pain and impair function by putting pressure on the tissues and nerves it impacts.
Estimated percentage of brain tumors that are benign
Estimated number of Americans living with a primary brain tumor
Different types of primary brain tumors
The exact cause of most primary brain tumors is unknown. The main risk factors for brain and nerve tumors include genetics, exposure to radiation, and age.
Brain tumor risk increases with age. The median age for primary brain tumor diagnosis is 61. Radiation exposure also increases the risk for brain and nerve tumors—specifically exposure to ionizing radiation, which is used in some cancer treatments.
Genetics play a role in some brain and nerve tumors. While the majority of brain and nerve tumors do not have an inherited genetic component, a family history exists in 5-10% of cases. A few rare genetic conditions associated with brain tumors include neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Gorlin syndrome, Turcot syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis. Genetic counseling can help uncover one’s risks for brain and nerve tumors.
The outward signs and symptoms of brain tumors and nerve tumors vary depending on their location, size, and type.
Common symptoms of brain tumors include confusion, personality changes, balance problems, headaches, and nausea. Coordination problems and reduced strength and feeling in the limbs are also reported. People with brain tumors may experience speech, vision, and hearing difficulties.
Glioblastoma is a type of malignant brain tumor. These tumors form in the cells of the brain and spinal cord tasked with providing a structure for neurons to send nerve signals. Glioblastoma is typically an aggressive form of tumor and can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness as it grows and presses on the brain. Other symptoms may differ depending on the exact location and size of the tumor.
Benign brain tumors are not cancerous. They tend to grow more slowly than malignant brain tumors and do not typically spread.
Meningiomas are brain tumors that grow in the layers of protective tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. They are often benign, but even benign brain tumors can be serious. Symptoms of meningioma include seizures, vision changes, headaches, and nausea. In some cases, they can cause behavioral changes and problems with cognition.
Nerve tumors are abnormal masses that grow on the nerves connecting the spinal cord to the rest of the body. These nerves are also known as peripheral nerves. They control muscle movements for activities like walking, swallowing, blinking, and grasping items. When tumors form on the inside or outside of these nerves, they can impact these functions. They can also cause pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling. Lumps or bumps may form that can be seen or felt under the skin.
Nerve sheath tumors grow on the protective, insulating covering of nerve fibers. A small percentage of these are malignant. Around 95% are benign.
Neurofibrosarcomas are a type of malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. Usually found in the limbs, they can spread along the nerves, sometimes reaching the lungs. This type of nerve sheath tumor is rare and accounts for less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed yearly.
Schwannomas form in the protective cells that form the nerve sheath. They are typically benign. Vestibular schwannomas are the most common type of this peripheral nerve sheath tumor. This type of schwannoma affects the connection between the brain and the inner ear and can cause hearing loss and balance problems.
Other types of benign peripheral nerve sheath tumors include neurofibromas, perineuriomas, ganglion cysts, and lipomas.
Early diagnosis is important for nerve and brain tumors. Doctors will perform physical and neurological examinations as part of the diagnostic process. Diagnostic images may be captured with MRI, PET, CT scans, or ultrasound.
A doctor can also order a biopsy if necessary. A biopsy involves taking a small sample of the tumor for further analysis. This can determine if a tumor is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).
Brain and nerve tumor treatment options depend upon the location, size, and nature of the tumor. An individual’s overall health and various other medical conditions may factor into treatment selection and planning.
Brain and nerve tumor treatments may include surgery, ionizing radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Doctors also monitor some tumors for growth and change. In some cases, part or all of a tumor is removed via surgery. Ionizing radiation can be used to target and destroy malignant cells. Chemotherapy uses medications to target tumor cells and slow or stop their growth. Small, benign tumors may not need treatment, and instead may be monitored closely over time by your doctor.
Often therapists will work to help people recovering from brain and nerve tumor treatment. Speech, language, occupational, and physical therapists work with people during and following treatment. These therapies focus on rehabilitation and restoring body and speech function.
Current research focuses on developing new medications, therapies, and surgical procedures for brain and nerve tumors. The goal is to enhance the body’s ability to recognize and combat brain and nerve tumor formation and growth. Researchers also hope to improve brain and nerve tumor treatments by making them more precise and reducing the potential side effects.
Scientists hope to create more personalized medications to treat brain and nerve tumors by studying genetics. Researchers are currently using advanced computer analysis to pinpoint the specific genetic mutations that cancer cells rely on to thrive.
Current research also studies the biological factors that impact brain and nerve tumor development. Other studies focus on understanding proteins often found in brain and nerve tumors. These efforts aim to improve treatments for brain and nerve tumors.
Brain & Life® Magazine: Brain Tumor Overview
Brain Cancer Overview (National Cancer Institute)
Brain Tumor Information (American Brain Tumor Association)
Glioblastoma Summary (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center)
What is Glioblastoma Multiforme? (The Cancer Genome Atlas)
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