Children's Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. This is the body’s command center for thought, emotion, speech, vision, hearing, and balance.

Brain and spinal cord tumors in children are the result of cells growing out of control. As they get bigger, these tumors can press on the cells around them and cause damage. This can prevent the central nervous system from working the way it should.

Because of where they’re located, these tumors can affect a child’s behavior, balance, sight, speech, and hearing. They can also affect bowel and bladder control. Sometimes, they’re life-threatening.

What Parts of the Body Do They Affect?

Children’s brain and spinal cord tumors can be located in the spinal cord or in any of the brain’s three main parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum, or brain stem.

The cerebrum is at the top of the head. It controls learning, emotions, and voluntary movements.

The cerebellum is near the middle of the head, farther back. It controls balance.

The brain stem is connected to the spinal cord. It controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles you use to walk, talk, hear, eat, and see.

The spinal cord connects the brain with nerves throughout the body. It sends signals back and forth for things like moving muscles.

What Are the Different Types?

There are many, but they fall into two main categories: benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Benign brain and spinal cord tumors can affect the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord. They rarely spread to other parts of the body. Still, these tumors can cause serious problems because of where they’re located. They can even be life threatening.

Malignant tumors are likely to grow quickly. They may also spread into other brain tissue, or to other parts of the body.

What Causes Them?

Doctors aren’t sure.

In rare cases, children have inherited genes that increase the risk of a brain or spinal cord tumor. These include neurofibromatosis, Li Fraumeni syndrome, Lynch syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis.


What Puts a Child At Risk?

Radiation is the only known environmental risk factor. This is usually the result of medical treatment for some other condition. Radiation therapy, CT scans, and X-rays to the head all increase the risk of tumors.

Electromagnetic radiation from cell phone and power lines have both been studied as possible risk factors. But researchers haven’t found convincing evidence that links these things to childhood brain tumors.

At What Age Are Children Typically Diagnosed?

Unless they’ve got a higher genetic risk, children aren’t routinely tested for brain or spinal cord tumors. They’re usually tested only if they’re showing symptoms. That means there’s no standard age for children to be diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor.

Children can develop tumors as infants or teenagers. Symptoms like headaches, vomiting, dizziness, and feeling off balance can develop slowly or come on quickly.

If her doctor suspects a tumor, your child may undergo imaging tests like a CT scan or MRI to get a picture of her brain or spinal cord.

Possible Complications

Treatment depends on your child’s age, where the tumor is located, whether it has spread, and whether it can be removed through surgery.

Most children with brain or spinal cord tumors can be treated successfully. Some may have lasting health or developmental problems as a result of the tumor or treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on May 16, 2019



National Cancer Institute: “Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Treatment Overview.”

American Cancer Society: “What Are Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children?” “What are the Risk Factors for Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children?” “Can Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children Be Found Early?”

Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors.”

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Cell Phone Use and Brain Tumors in Children.”

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