Brain tumour symptoms and diagnosis

This page will help to explain brain tumour symptoms and how a diagnosis of a brain tumour is made.

Brain tumour symptoms & signs

There are a number of brain tumour symptoms and signs, depending on the type of brain tumour and its location. Some symptoms may be very severe or may not be apparent at all.

Symptoms are abnormal changes you have felt, and signs are what other people have observed about you, such as, a weakness in an arm or leg, or having difficult with speech.

If you are experiencing symptoms and signs that are concerning you, the first step would be to visit your GP to discuss these and they can advise further.

Brain tumour symptoms can include:

Symptom Comment
Headaches Headaches which are more severe in the morning and wake you in the night. They are usually different from headaches you might have had previously and will be persistent and worsen with time
Nausea and vomiting With a headache this can indicate increased pressure in the head (raised intracranial pressure).
Seizures A seizure is abnormal electrical impulses in the brain, causing sudden involuntary changes in movement or function, sensation, awareness, or behaviour. A first time seizure in an adult is often investigated.
Weakness, loss of sensation or numbness This is a sign of pressure on (or damage to) a specific part of the brain and can also be manifested through walking unsteadily or lack of coordination (ataxia) or muscle weakness on one side of the body (hemiparesis).
Hearing loss Could be a sign of an acoustic neuroma if it occurs only on one side.
Loss/disturbance of vision, including double vision In one or both eyes could be a symptom, if there is a tumour pressing on the optic nerve or there is one affecting the visual pathways or if there is raised intracranial pressure.
Speech difficulties May also include the loss of ability to write, speak or understand words. A person may have difficulty getting the right words out (expressive dysphasia) or difficulty articulating them (dysarthia).
Other brain tumour symptoms Lack of concentration, confusion, memory loss, disorientation, drowsiness, change in behaviour.

How a diagnosis of a brain tumour is made

You cannot see or feel a brain tumour during a routine examination. In order to determine whether you have a brain tumour, and to investigate the symptoms or signs you have presented with, you will be referred for a scan.

Brain tumours are identified using a CT or MRI scan. An expert who interprets scans (radiologist) will be able to see if you have an abnormality, which they may call a tumour.

If it is suspected that you have a brain tumour, your scans will be discussed at a neuroscience MDT (multidisciplinary team) meeting. MDT meetings are held weekly and you should receive the results of your scan around 5 days after the MDT meeting.

You can read more information about getting a brain tumour diagnosis in our patient guide here.

MRI and CT scans

Below you will find information about MRI and CT scans, how they work and the differences between them:

MRI scan

MRI stand for magnetic resonance imaging. This type of scan uses magnetic and radio waves, so no exposure to X-rays or any damaging forms of radiation. An MRI scan takes pictures from any direction. Contrast agents (usually gadolinium) can be used to delineate the lesion. These are usually injected into the arm during the scan. This has made some of our patients feel sick but this could be the thought of the injection. Needles are scary things.

Just a word about pacemakers; you may not be able to have an MRI scan if you have a pacemaker fitted or other metal objects in your body but alternatives are offered. Some new pacemakers are MRI compatible though – you will need to check with your cardiologist.

The scan will last about 45 minutes and can be noisy. Some hospitals let you listen to a CD so take one just in case.

Other tips – wear warm clothing; it can be chilly in the room. You will need to take off jewellery and anything else metal. This includes underwired bras and jeans with studs in.

If you have a child undergoing an MRI scan, get them to imagine they are going into a space capsule.

You should receive the results within two weeks. Privately, you can have the scan and reporting done on the same day, but private scans can be expensive. You can get one done privately with a report for a little over £200 – it depends where you go.

CT scan – computerised tomography.

Instead of sending out a single x-ray through the body, several beams are sent simultaneously from different angles. The computer then processes the results showing them as a 2D picture. CT scans are less expensive and take less time than an MRI scan, but they have lower resolution so could potentially not show some skull base and low grade tumours, as well as an MRI scan. So, if you have one type of scan rather than another, it is usually because one will be more suited to you.

A CT scan usually lasts around 20 minutes and is quieter than an MRI scan. You lie on a table and the scanner moves around your head. If you need a contrast scan, then an iodine-based contrast agent will be injected. This shows the ‘leaky’ blood vessels in a tumour and enables the neuroradiologist to see the mass directly.

Other tips – Warm clothing is recommended; it can be chilly in the room. And if you are allergic to shellfish let the radiographer know, because some contrast agents contain iodine.

Reporting is usually done within two weeks. Again – this may be sooner if you have a private CT scan.

Image of our leaflet what to expect if you are diagnosed with a suspected brain tumour. brain tumour diagnosis and symptoms.Brain tumour diagnosis

Hearing the words “you may have a brain tumour” it can be a terrifying, isolating time, causing uncertainty.

The ‘What to expect if you are diagnosed with a suspected brain tumour’ leaflet will help you to cope with the fear and uncertainty. It explains what you can expect to happen next, so you can feel more informed and more in control after your scans. We’ve also included some top tips from those that have been through the same experience.

brainstrust support is driven by your support. Click here to help us do even more for people living with a brain tumour in your area.

Did this information make you feel more resourced, more confident or more in control?

Brain tumour symptoms and diagnosis.

Date published: 17-05-2009
Last edited: 29-09-2021
Due for review: 29-09-2024

sidebar brainbox


The Brain Tumour Data Dashboard lets you explore up -to-date, population level data about the brain tumours diagnosed in England between 2013 and 2015. Using the drop down menus on the left you can select different groups of patients to view in the charts below. In these charts the number of patients for every 100 diagnoses is displayed as images of people. Patients have been grouped by date of diagnosis, type of tumour, age, gender, and region in England.

For each group of patients you can explore the different routes to diagnosis, the proportion of those who received chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as well as the survival of the patients within each group. For more information about what these metrics mean please see the glossary.

How to use

  1. Select the year of diagnosis using the drop down menu.
  2. Select your patient group of interest from the four drop down menus in the following order:
    1. Tumour group
    2. Age at diagnosis
    3. Region of England
    4. Gender of patient
  3. To view a second chart to compare different groups of patients, click the ‘compare’ button.The second chart will appear below the first chart.

*Note that the tool is best used on a laptop or tablet rather than a mobile phone*

Unavailable data

Some of the data in these charts is not available.There are two main reasons for this:

  1. How the data has been grouped

If you cannot select a patient group from the drop down menus, the data is unavailable because of how the data has been organised.

Public Health England has grouped the data like a branching tree. The bottom of the tree contains all the patients with brain tumours, and then each branch divides the data by a certain characteristics, like age, or location of tumour. But the data is divided in an order, starting with location of the tumour (endocrine or brain), then by age, region, and gender. Age is at the start because it makes a bigger difference to survival rates and treatment rates than gender or region. Sometimes, after the data has been split by type of tumour and age, there is not enough data to be split again. This is because to protect patient confidentiality groups cannot contain less than 100 patients. Because some groups cannot be split further, you cannot create ‘totals’ for everyone by region or gender. For example, you cannot see results for all ages by region, or all brain tumours by gender. If these totals were calculated and released, it might be possible to identify patients, which is why Public Health England cannot release this data.

  1. Statistical reasons and data availability

If you can select a patient group from the chart menus, but the chart does not display, the data is unavailable for one of several reasons:

  1. Data is not yet available for the selected year from Public Health England.
  2. Data is not available because the data quality is too poor to release this statistic.
  3. Data is not available as the statistic is not appropriate for this group.
  4. Data is not available because the standard error of the estimate was greater than 20% and so the estimate has been supressed.

Up to date brain tumour data

Brain tumour data may influence the decisions you make about your care. Data also helps you understand the bigger picture, or landscape, in which you find yourself.

Brain tumour data and statistics influence the focus, and work of organisations like brainstrust. The information helps us to understand the scale and impact of the problems we are setting out to solve.

This tool helps you understand the landscape in which you find yourself having been diagnosed with a brain tumour. This landscape can be particularly tricky to navigate as there are many different types of brain tumour, all of which have a different impact.

The information you see represents the most up-to-date, official, population level brain tumour data available for England. Over time we will be adding to the brain tumour data available and publishing reports, with recommendations, as a result of what we learn from this data.

The data behind this content has come from Public Health England’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS) and is a direct result of the ‘Get Data Out’ project.

This project provides anonymised population level brain tumour data for public use in the form of standard output tables, accessible here:


The number or rate (per head of population) of new cases of a disease diagnosed in a given population during a specified time period (usually a calendar year). The crude rate is the total number of cases divided by the mid-year population, usually expressed per 100,000 population.


Malignant tumours which grow by invasion into surrounding tissues and have the ability to metastasise to distant sites


The number or rate (per head of population) of deaths in a given population during a specified time period (usually a calendar year). The crude rate is the total number of deaths divided by the mid-year population, usually expressed per 100,000 population.


Not cancerousNon-malignant tumours may grow larger but do not spread to other parts of the body.


The length of time from the date of diagnosis for a disease, such as cancer, that patients diagnosed with the disease are still alive. In a clinical trial, measuring the survival is one way to see how well a new treatment works. Also called ‘overall survival’ or ‘OS’.

Routes to Diagnosis

Under the ‘Routes to Diagnosis’ tab in the Brain Tumour Data Dashboard, you can explore the ways patients have been diagnosed with brain tumours. There are many ways, or routes, for cancers to be diagnosed in the NHS. A ‘route to diagnosis’ is the series of events between a patient and the healthcare system that leads to a diagnosis of cancer. The routes include:

  1. Two Week Wait

Patients are urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer via the Two Week Wait system and are seen by a specialist within 2 weeks where they are diagnosed.

  1. GP referral

Diagnosis via a GP referral includes routine and urgent referrals where the patient was not referred under the Two Week Wait system.

  1. Emergency Presentation

Cancers can be diagnosed via emergency situations such as via A&E, emergency GP referral, emergency transfer or emergency admission.

  1. Outpatient

Outpatient cancer diagnoses include diagnoses via an elective route which started with an outpatient appointment that is either a self-referral or consultant to consultant referral. (It does not include those under the Two Week Wait referral system).

  1. Inpatient elective

Diagnosis via an inpatient elective route is where diagnosis occurs after the patient has been admitted into secondary care from a waiting list, or where the admission is booked or planned.

  1. Death Certificate Only

Diagnoses made by Death Certificate Only are made where there is no more information about the cancer diagnosis other than the cancer related death notifications. The date of diagnosis is the same as that of the date of death.

  1. Unknown

For some patients with a cancer diagnosis, there is no relevant data available to understand the route to diagnosis.


More information

If any of the statistical terms in this section of the brainstrust website are hard to understand, we recommend looking them up here:

Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Statistics Explained

If you are looking for help understanding terms relating specifically to brain tumours, and treatment, then the brainstrust glossary is available here: