From the Brainroom: What Are Brain and Spinal Tumors?

What are Brain and Spinal Tumors?

Brain and spinal cord tumors are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the skull or the bony spinal column, which are the primary components of the central nervous system (CNS).

Benign tumors are noncancerous, and malignant tumors are cancerous.

The CNS is housed within rigid, bony quarters (i.e., the skull and spinal column), so any abnormal growth, whether benign or malignant, can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function.

Tumors that originate in the brain or spinal cord are called primary tumors.

Most primary tumors are caused by out-of-control growth among cells that surround and support neurons.

In a small number of individuals, primary tumors may result from specific genetic disease (e.g., neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis) or from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals.

The cause of most primary tumors remains a mystery.

They are not contagious and, at this time, not preventable.

Symptoms of brain tumors include headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting, vision or hearing problems, behavioral and cognitive problems, motor problems, and balance problems.

Spinal cord tumor symptoms include pain, sensory changes, and motor problems.

The first test to diagnose brain and spinal column tumors is a neurological examination.

Special imaging techniques (computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography) are also employed.

Laboratory tests include the EEG and the spinal tap.

A biopsy, a surgical procedure in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, helps doctors diagnose the type of tumor.

Is there any treatment?

The three most commonly used treatments are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Doctors also may prescribe steroids to reduce the swelling inside the CNS.

What is the prognosis?

Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors generally develop slowly and worsen over time unless they are treated.

The tumor may be classified as benign or malignant and given a numbered score that reflects how malignant it is.

This score can help doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome, or prognosis, for the patient.

(Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke,

What are malignant gliomas?

Malignant gliomas are the most common primary brain tumor, accounting for more than half of the more than 18,000 primary malignant brain tumors diagnosed each year in the United States

These tumors are the second-most common cause of cancer death in the 15 to 44 age group.

The outlook for patients with malignant gliomas is poor.

Median survival for patients with moderately severe malignant gliomas is three to five years.

For patients with the most severe, aggressive form of malignant glioma median survival is less than a year

(source: National Cancer Institute — Many Patients with Malignant Gliomas Don't Receive Recommended Care:

Treatment for a glioma - and survival odds - depends on the tumor type, size and location, and the patient's age and overall health

Gliomas can be complex, and a variety of techniques and procedures needed to treat them

A tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal cells

Tumors found in the brain typically are categorized as primary or secondary

Gliomas (primary brain tumors) start in the brain or spinal cord tissue

They can spread within the nervous system but do not spread outside the nervous system

Gliomas can be either benign (slow growing) or malignant (fast growing)

(source: Mayo Clinic — glioma: