Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Overview of Tumors of the Nervous System


Steven A. Goldman

, MD, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
Click here for the Professional Version

A tumor is an abnormal growth, whether noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). In many parts of the body, a noncancerous tumor causes few or no problems. However, if any growth or mass in the brain (brain tumor) or spinal cord (spinal cord tumor) is getting larger, it can cause considerable damage because the structures that contain the brain (the skull) and spinal cord (the spine) cannot expand to make room for any increase in their contents.

Tumors, whether cancerous or not, can develop from nerve tissue in the brain or spinal cord. Cancerous tumors can spread (metastasize) to the brain or spinal cord from elsewhere in the body.

Some cancers elsewhere in the body cause symptoms of nervous system dysfunction even though there is no evidence that nerve tissue has been invaded. These disorders are called paraneoplastic syndromes. The most common paraneoplastic syndromes involve dysfunction of the peripheral nerves (polyneuropathy) and result in muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling. But more severe paraneoplastic syndromes can cause dementia, mood swings, psychosis (which may involve delusions, hallucinations, and bizarre behavior), seizures, incoordination, dizziness, double vision, and abnormal eye movements. These syndromes may be fatal even when the tumor is stable. In such cases, treatment includes removing antibodies that may cause the paraneoplastic syndrome from the blood (plasmapheresis). However, the most effective treatment is removal of the tumor.

Tumors of the nervous system may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or, most often, a combination. Radiation therapy sometimes damages the nervous system, despite the best efforts to prevent this effect. Chemotherapy can affect brain function, so doctors choose chemotherapy drugs carefully to avoid causing undue harm.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
Others also read

Test your knowledge

The brain consists of the cerebrum, brain stem, and cerebellum. It requires constant nourishment provided by a continual flow of blood and oxygen from the heart. Approximately how much of the blood pumped by the heart goes to the brain?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID