Because the human brain is so complex and involved with the far-reaching functions of your body—such as your vision, thoughts, motor skills, and much, much more—it makes sense that problems with this remarkable organ can manifest with vastly different, and sometimes subtle, symptoms. Losing the ability to hear in a very specific way, for example, can be a sign of a brain tumor. There’s one symptom, however, that many people may dismiss, and which doctors say may be of concern. Read on to find out about one serious warning sign of a brain tumor that is commonly ignored, and how to know whether you should be worried if it happens to you.
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The term “brain tumor” doesn’t refer to just one kind of tumor. “There are more than 120 different types of tumors that can develop in the brain, depending on what tissue they arise from,” reports Johns Hopkins Medicine, which notes that approximately 30 out of 100,000 adults in the U.S. develop tumors of the brain and nervous system at some point in their lives.
While some people equate brain tumors with cancer, only about one-third of brain tumors are cancerous. “But whether they’re cancerous or not, brain tumors can impact brain function and your health if they grow large enough to press on surrounding nerves, blood vessels and tissue,” warns the Cleveland Clinic.
Your brain can send you warning signals about a tumor in many ways. “Some common symptoms of brain tumors include headache, memory difficulty, personality changes, speech changes, poor decision making, weakness, sensory changes, and fatigue, just to name a few,” says Eva Shelton, MD, internist at Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital and content developer at Mochi.
Sensory symptoms include a feeling of pins and needles and numbness in the face, arms, hands, legs, and feet, according to the experts at the Moffitt Cancer Center. “Numbness and tingling caused by a brain tumor tend to affect only one side of the body,” they explain. “The site of numbness and tingling will depend on where the tumor is located within the brain.”
Personality changes can also occur with a brain tumor. “When a person is diagnosed with a brain tumor, changes in behavior and thinking occur in most patients at some point during their treatment,” advises CancerCare. “Changes in behavior may include mild memory loss, mood swings, or intense emotional outbursts.”
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A symptom commonly associated with brain tumors is a headache, although Lauren Schaff, MD, a neuro-oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), points out on the MSK website that while headaches are very common, brain tumors are not. “Everybody gets headaches at some point,” Schaff emphasizes. “A brain tumor is not going to present with one single headache that lasts for a couple of hours and never comes back.” At the same time, “many people suffer from primary headache disorders where they experience frequent headaches,” Schaff added.
A lesser-known symptom of a brain tumor, and one which may be ignored, is memory loss. “Many brain tumors happen in older people, and forgetfulness is one of the most frequently missed symptoms and often blamed on old age or dementia,” warns Shelton. “Memory is a multimodal function of the brain, but commonly people with brain tumors pressing on the frontal lobe, which is the executive center, have forgetfulness as a main symptom.”
Forgetfulness is not uncommon in older adults. “About 40 percent of people aged 65 or older have age-associated memory impairment—in the United States, about 16 million people,” according to a 2002 article published in the The BMJ. So it can be difficult to discern when memory loss is caused by the aging process or by a serious condition such as dementia or a brain tumor.
“Memory loss associated with a brain tumor is more than simply forgetting where you left your keys,” advises Penn Medicine, noting that signs of severe memory loss may include forgetting the name of common objects, asking the same question over and over, forgetting how to do everyday tasks like buttoning clothing, and not being able to identify words or numbers.
Shelton recommends bringing any new or concerning symptoms to your doctor’s attention. “You should contact a doctor when you develop new or concerning symptoms to get evaluated. There are scans that doctors can do to take a closer look at the brain,” she says.