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

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2021

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

Children with a CNS tumor may experience the following symptoms or signs. A symptom is something that only the person experiencing it can identify and describe, such as fatigue, nausea, or pain. A sign is something that other people can identify and measure, such as a fever, rash, or an elevated pulse. Together, signs and symptoms can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, children with a CNS tumor do not have any of the signs and symptoms 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 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 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 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. This may 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 DiagnosisIt 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.