Central Nervous System Tumors (Brain and Spinal Cord) - Childhood: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. Use the menu to see other pages.

Children with a central nervous system (CNS) tumor may experience the following symptoms or signs. Symptoms are changes that you can feel in your body. Signs are changes in something measured, like by taking your blood pressure or doing a lab test. Together, symptoms and signs can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, children with a CNS tumor do not have any of the symptoms and signs described below. Or, the cause of a symptom or sign may be a medical condition that is not a tumor.

The symptoms of a CNS tumor can affect any of the brain’s functions and depend on where the tumor is located. A CNS tumor may cause the following symptoms:

  • Headache, which is often increasingly severe over time and may wake a child up at night or develop early in the morning

  • Unexplained, persistent nausea and projectile vomiting

  • Weakness or clumsiness that is new, such as sudden difficulty walking and balancing, that seems to get worse

  • New vision problems

  • Developmental delay, loss of a development milestone, or a decline in usual academic learning level at school

  • Early or delayed onset of puberty

  • Delayed or abnormal growth

  • Pain, especially back pain

  • Irritability, listlessness, or changes in personality

  • A seizure or convulsion, which are sudden involuntary movements of a person’s muscles

  • Staring or repetitive automatic movements, such as a neck tilt or a squint

In a baby, the only symptom may be that the head circumference is growing too fast. An infant’s skull can expand to make room for a growing tumor, so the baby may have a larger head than expected.

If you are concerned about any changes your child experiences, please talk with your child’s doctor. Your child's doctor will ask how long and how often your child has been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help figure out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If a tumor is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of care and treatment. Managing symptoms may also be called "palliative care" or "supportive care." It is often started soon after diagnosis and continued throughout treatment. Be sure to talk with the health care team about the symptoms your child experiences, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.