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An estimated 87,000 people will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor annually in the United States. At least 25,000 of these tumors are malignant, and most of these are gliomas. Meningiomas account for 35%, vestibular schwannomas 10%, and central nervous system (CNS) lymphomas ~2%. Brain metastases are three times more common than all primary brain tumors combined and are diagnosed in ~150,000 people each year. Metastases to the leptomeninges and epidural space of the spinal cord each occur in ~3–5% of patients with systemic cancer and are also a major cause of neurologic disability.


Clinical Features

Brain tumors of any type can present with a variety of symptoms and signs that fall into two categories: general and focal; patients often have a combination of the two (Table 90-1). General symptoms include headache, with or without nausea or vomiting, cognitive difficulties, personality change, and gait disorder. These symptoms arise when the enlarging tumor and its surrounding edema cause an increase in intracranial pressure or compression of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulation leading to hydrocephalus. The classic brain tumor headache predominates in the morning and improves during the day, but this pattern is seen in a minority of patients. Headaches are often holocephalic but can be ipsilateral to the side of a tumor. Occasionally, headaches have features of a typical migraine with unilateral throbbing pain associated with visual scotoma. Personality changes may include apathy and withdrawal from social situations, mimicking depression. Focal or lateralizing findings include hemiparesis, aphasia, or visual field defect. Lateralizing symptoms are typically subacute and progressive; language difficulties may be mistaken for confusion. Seizures are common, occurring in ~25% of patients with brain metastases or malignant gliomas, and are the presenting symptom in up to 90% of patients with a low-grade glioma. All seizures arising from a brain tumor will have a focal onset whether or not it is apparent clinically.

TABLE 90-1Symptoms and Signs at Presentation of Brain Tumors


Cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the preferred diagnostic test for any patient suspected of having a brain tumor and should be performed with gadolinium contrast administration. Computed tomography (CT) scan should be reserved for those patients unable to undergo MRI. Malignant brain tumors—whether primary or metastatic—typically enhance with gadolinium, have central areas of necrosis, and are surrounded by edema of the neighboring white ...

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