Brain tumour symptoms: know the signs

Lesley Dobson / 02 March 2016 ( 15 March 2017 )

Learn more about some of the most common symptoms of a brain tumour.

The thought of having a brain tumour can be very worrying, but ignoring warning signs is never a good idea.

10 early signs of cancer

It is important to be aware of the symptoms of brain tumours, so that you can recognize the signs, and see your GP.

However it’s also useful to know that brain tumours are fairly rare. Approximately 9,300 people in the UK are diagnosed with a brain tumour each year. This compares with more than 41,500 people in the UK diagnosed with bowel cancer each year.

Brain tumour symptoms vary. This can depend on the type of tumour and in which part of the brain the tumour is growing.  Similar symptoms can result from malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous) tumours. They can also vary from person to person. Brain tumours can also grow at different rates – slowly or quickly – depending on the type of tumour.

Brain tumour symptoms


Headaches are among the most common symptoms. Those caused by a tumour tend to be severe, to last a long time, and may be throbbing headaches. They may also feel worse if you cough. Brain tumour-related headaches may not improve after taking painkillers, but you may find that they feel less painful when you stand up.

Waking in the night with a headache, or having worse headaches in the morning, particularly if you also feel sick, may be signs of a brain tumour. If your headaches fit this pattern, particularly if they are making you feel sick, you should see your GP.

12 types of headaches and what they mean

Feeling sick

Your doctor may also describe this as nausea. This symptom can be more extreme in the morning, or if you suddenly change from sitting down to standing up.

If you have a headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting these can be signs that you have increased pressure in your head. In medical terms this is known as raised intracranial pressure. This increased pressure can be caused by a brain tumour.

Vision problems

These can include blurred eyesight, making it difficult to see clearly. You may also have moments where you lose vision – known as ‘greying out’ – when you change posture or stand up quickly, for instance.

Seizures or fits

These are a common symptom of brain tumours, and can often be the reason why people visit their doctor about this condition. According to The Brain Tumour Charity, one quarter of those who are diagnosed with a brain tumour see their GP about their symptoms for the first time following a seizure.

Seizures can vary in strength. Subtle seizures, which are more common than severe seizures, don’t make you lose consciousness. They can cause twitching in an arm or leg, as your muscles relax and then tighten again.

Some seizures can cause short periods of ‘absence’, which can make it seem as though you have switched off for a while, but you may still have your eyes open. They can also affect your senses of taste and smell. It can take a little while to recover after a seizure, so don’t try to get up and move too quickly.

Personality changes

Brain tumours can cause personality changes, either directly, because of their location, or because of swelling in the brain following treatment. Sometimes the emotional toll of having a brain tumour and everything that follows from that, such as the treatment that’s involved, and becoming more dependent on others, can bring on a change in personality.

Being aggressive or irritable, feeling confused, depressed and having mood swings, are all common symptoms of personality changes. Someone with a brain tumour may also lose their inhibitions, and shout and swear, or behave inappropriately in public.

Feeling drowsy

This symptom usually develops later on in the course of this condition. As the tumour become larger, and exerts more pressure on your brain, it can affect your sleeping pattern. This can mean that you sleep during the day, as well as sleeping more at night.

Other factors affecting brain tumour symptoms

  • The size of the tumour can make a difference because tumours can cause pressure in your skull. The pressure will increase as the tumour grows. The symptoms most likely to be caused by extra pressure include sickness, headaches, vomiting and confusion.
  • The location of the tumour can also make a difference, because it can affect how well different parts of the brain work.
  • Tumours located in the cerebrum can affect your speech, memory and your vision.
  • Tumours that develop in the cerebellum and brain stem can cause problems with your movement, balance and physical coordination. This can also cause dizziness and a stiff neck.

The human brain

A quick guide to the brain

There are three main parts to the human brain:

1. The cerebrum is the biggest section of the brain. It is split into two halves, with the right half controlling the left side of the body, and the left side controlling the right side of the body. These halves both divide into four lobes that have control over a range of functions. These include thinking and feeling, memory, personality, language, sight, touch and behaviour, and other functions. For example, a tumour in your frontal lobe (part of the cerebrum) can cause weakness on one side of your body.

2. The cerebellum is at the back of your brain and looks after co-ordination, posture and balance. Tumours in the cerebellum and the brain stem can also cause difficulties with coordination, and can make you unsteady and dizzy, and can affect your ability to walk.

3. The brain stem joins the brain to the spinal cord. It looks after the body functions that keep us alive, including breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, heartbeat, and digestion.

The pituitary gland, in the centre of the brain, looks after energy, weight gain, mood swings and high blood pressure.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.