Jul 20, 2017 12:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell


Earlier this week Senator John McCain revealed a surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain had discovered something else – a malignant brain tumor. However, surgery is not the most common way such tumors are usually found and diagnosed. Neither are headaches, believe it or not. “Headaches do not correlate with brain tumors very well,” said Randy Jensen, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon with University of Utah Health. “They are too nonspecific. A constant pressure in the head may suggest an issue but not episodic experiences of pain.” 

Signs of a Stroke and Brain Tumor

So, what then are the most common symptoms of a brain tumor? “A lot of the time a brain tumor is mistaken for a stroke,” said Jensen. “That’s how it presents: as a new onset of a seizure or a new deficiency like a numb arm or leg.”

The lateral nature of symptoms observed in stroke patients is also often seen in patients with brain tumors. Patients may complain of “losing” some of their vision on one side, or they may neglect things that happen on one side of the body. “Family members will come in and say they knew something was wrong when a patient didn’t seem to notice the other side of the road when driving,” said Jensen.  

Changes in personality are also a symptom in both strokes and brain tumors. These occur when the frontal lobe of the brain is affected. “A person may become more impulsive or apathetic,” said Jensen. “They may suffer mood swings or lash out at those around them for no apparent reason.” 

The Difference Between Brain Tumors and Strokes

While a stroke and a brain tumor may present with similar symptoms it is the timing of these symptoms that differentiates them. With a stroke, the symptoms happen quickly over a period of minutes or hours. With a brain tumor, the symptoms may come on so subtlely that those around the patient take little to no notice right away. “They may be willing to write it off,” said Jensen. “They may think it’s a momentary lapse, or blame it on something else.”

Such symptoms should not be written off though, and should be addressed sooner rather than later. If an apparent neurological deficiency develops it is best to make an appointment if it lasts more than a couple of days. “Make an appointment with your primary care physician,” said Jensen. “They can assess if your symptoms require you to have a neurological workup and brain imaging.”

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