What are the warning signs of a brain tumor in a child?

Brain tumors in children almost always originate in the base of the brain near the brainstem.  From the base, or bottom, of the brain, the tumor often spreads down the cervical spinal column.  Such tumors, such as an ependymoma, often cause neck and head pain.

An ependymoma is a brain tumor that originates in the lining of the ventricles of the brain.  In children, ependymomas originate in hollow cavities of the brain known as ventricles and most commonly, in the third or fourth ventricle near the base of the brain (near the cerebellum).  The brainstem and cerebellum are located at the base of the brain, and this is the part of the brain that controls physical coordination and organized motor functions.

When a brain tumor originates in the base of the brain near the brainstem and cerebellum, the physical coordination of the child can be affected and the child may have difficulty with balance, walking and running.

Why is neck and head pain a major warning sign of a tumor in children?

Unlike adults who often have head and neck pain that is often caused by arthritis, children should not have neck and head pain without a known cause.  If your child complains of recurrent head or neck pain, you should not take the symptom lightly. The fact that the head and neck pain is intermittent should not lower your suspicion of a brain tumor, as such symptoms commonly wax and wane with brain cancer.

Head and neck pain caused by a brain tumor is most common at night.  Intracranial pressure is generally increased at night and thus, head and neck pain caused by a tumor is most common when a child is sleeping.  If your child wakes up screaming in pain at night (and this occurs on a repeated basis), you will want the pediatrician to rule out a brain tumor.

You should keep a close eye out for any changes in your child's activity level. A lethargic child, i.e., a kid disinterested in playing with his friends and siblings, is a potentially ominous warning sign, and the child's lack of interest in physical activities can be a warning sign of brain cancer.

Other warning signs of pediatric cancer include a lack of appetite in a child.   Children should love to eat and eat a lot, but when a child has little interest in eating, this is another warning sign that can be associated with brain cancer.

A tell-tale warning sign of a brain tumor is light and sound sensitivity.  When your child expresses a sensitivity to light or sound, this can be a sign of increased intracranial pressure that is caused by a brain tumor.  When coupled with head or neck pain, light or sound sensitivity can be an major warning sign of a a pediatric brain tumor.

What do you do if your child has these symptoms of a brain tumor?

This is the easy part: ask your child's pediatrician to rule out a brain tumor by ordering a CT scan or MRI of the brain.  Imaging studies of the brain, such as a CT or MRI, are considered definitive in ruling out a brain tumor.  The imaging studies take 15 minutes and are easy to order--this is no excuse to avoid such a workup if your child has signs and symptoms of a brain tumor.

While a CT scan poses exposure to radiation, a MRI does not entail any exposure to radiation to your child and it is very accurate in detecting brain tumors.  Once you get the negative results of the imaging studies, you can rest easy knowing that you child does not have brain cancer, or other abnormalities of the brain.

What can happen if a pediatric brain tumor is not timely diagnosed

If the brain tumor is not surgically removed, your child may suffer obstructive hydrocephalus.  The tumor located at the base of the brain blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid from the base of the brain down the cervical spinal column.  When cerebrospinal fluid is blocked by a brain tumor, the CSF backs up in the brain and this causes pressure and swelling on the brain tissue.  The buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain can cause permanent damage to the brain tissue, including cerebral atrophy (loss of brain volume).

The malignant brain tumor can spread (metatasize) from the base of the brain down the cervical spinal column.  When the tumor spreads down the cervical spinal column, the tumor is much more difficult to surgically remove.  The surgical removal of the tumor entails the opening of the skull (craniotomy) and the removal of portions of the cervical vertebrae.

The adverse outcomes from a brain tumor are not simply life or death.  Brain tumors, if untreated, can cause permanent brain damage that will affect your child's ability to develop normally at school, both mentally and physically.  Such brain damage can cause disabilities that require lifelong treatment with developmental peditricians and developmental specialists.

Your goal is to prevent the bad outcomes associated with undiagnosed brain tumors.  Keep an eye out for the warning signs of a pediatric brain tumor and insist upon a CT or MRI of the brain if your child has recurrent symptoms of head and neck pain.

I welcome your phone call if you have questions

If you want more information about pediatric brain cancer, I welcome your phone call on my toll-free cell at 866-889-6882 or you can request my free book, The Seven Deadly Mistakes of Malpractice Victims, from the home page of my website at www.protectingpatientrights.com.