Brain and Spinal Cord Tumours in Children

Abnormal growths in the brain or spinal cord that are usually cancerous

  • Slightly more common in boys
  • The underlying cause may be inherited
  • Age and lifestyle are not significant factors

Tumours of the brain and spinal cord are rare in children but still account for almost 1 in 4 cases of all childhood cancers. The disorder is slightly more common in boys. Most of these tumours originate in the nerve cells of the brain or spine or in the cells surrounding the nerves. The tumours are usually cancerous but rarely spread elsewhere. The cause of such tumours is not fully understood, but the risk is increased if a child has the inherited disorders neurofibromatosis, in which tumours grow along the nerves, or tuberous sclerosis, in which growths form on the brain and become hardened over time.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of brain tumours usually develop gradually and at first may be vague, such as failure to gain weight in babies or unsatisfactory school performance in older children. Brain tumours are therefore often not diagnosed until they are quite large, when symptoms may include:

  • Headache and vomiting, especially in the morning.

  • Clumsiness and unsteadiness.

  • Abnormal alignment of the eyes (see Strabismus).

  • Change in personality.

Sometimes, excess fluid builds up in the brain cavities (see Hydrocephalus). If a tumour is in the spinal cord, the symptoms may include:

  • Back pain.

  • Inability to pass urine.

  • Difficulty in walking.

Children with back pain should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

What might be done?

If the doctor is concerned that a child may have a brain or spinal cord tumour, he or she will arrange for imaging tests such as CT scanning or MRI to look for abnormalities. If a tumour is found, a small piece of tissue may be removed under general anaesthesia for microscopic examination.

Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, surgery is usually carried out to remove the tumour. Radiotherapy may also be given, and in some cases, chemotherapy may be used. If there is an accumulation of excess fluid around the brain, a shunt (a small drainage tube) may be inserted into the brain to divert the fluid into the abdomen (see Shunt for hydrocephalus).

If a child has a tumour, a team of professionals will be available to offer his or her whole family psychological support (see Counselling).

What is the prognosis?

Although brain and spinal tumours are serious and often diagnosed late, 1 in 2 children is alive 5 years after diagnosis. The outlook depends on the type of tumour. Some children who survive after treatment may have long-term physical disabilities or learning problems.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top