Brain tumor - children


A brain tumor is a group (mass) of abnormal cells that start in the brain.

This article focuses on primary brain tumors in children.


The cause of primary brain tumors is unknown. Primary brain tumors may be:

Brain tumors are classified based on:

Brain tumors can directly destroy brain cells. They can also indirectly damage cells by pushing on other parts of the brain. This leads to swelling and increased pressure inside the skull.

Tumors can occur at any age. Many tumors are more common at a certain age. In general, brain tumors in children are very rare.


Astrocytomas are usually noncancerous, slow-growing tumors. They commonly develop in children ages 5 to 8. Also called low-grade gliomas, these are the most common brain tumors in children.

Medulloblastomas are the most common type of childhood brain cancer. Most medulloblastomas occur before age 10.

Ependymomas are a type of childhood brain tumor that can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The location and type of ependymoma determine the type of therapy needed to control the tumor.

Brainstem gliomas are very rare tumors that occur almost only in children. The average age at which they develop is about 6. The tumor may grow very large before causing symptoms.


Symptoms may be subtle and only gradually become worse, or they may occur very quickly.

Headaches are often the most common symptom. But only very rarely do children with headaches have a tumor. Headache patterns that may occur with brain tumors include:

Sometimes, the only symptoms of brain tumors are mental changes, which may include:

Other possible symptoms are:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. Infants may have the following physical signs:

Older children with brain tumors may have the following physical signs or symptoms:

The following tests may be used to detect a brain tumor and identify its location:


Treatment depends on the size and type of tumor and the child's general health. The goals of treatment may be to cure the tumor, relieve symptoms, and improve brain function or the child's comfort.

Surgery is needed for most primary brain tumors. Some tumors may be completely removed. In cases where the tumor cannot be removed, surgery may help reduce pressure and relieve symptoms. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used for certain tumors.

The following are treatments for specific types of tumors:

Medicines used to treat children with primary brain tumors include:

Comfort measures, safety measures, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other such steps may be required to improve quality of life.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you and your child feel less alone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a child does depends on many things, including the type of tumor. In general, about 3 out of 4 children survive at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

Long-term brain and nervous system problems may result from the tumor itself or from treatment. Children may have problems with attention, focus, or memory. They may also have problems processing information, planning, insight, or initiative or desire to do things.

Children younger than age 7, especially younger than age 3, seem to be at greatest risk of these complications.

Parents need to make sure that children receive support services at home and at school.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call a provider if a child develops headaches that do not go away or other symptoms of a brain tumor.

Go to the emergency room if a child develops any of the following:

Review Date: 7/29/2017
Reviewed By: Adam S. Levy, MD, Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

This information should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. © 1997- 2007 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.