A brain stem tumor is a tumor that is located in the brain stem, which is the part of the brain that connects it to the spinal cord. Growths in this area can represent a serious medical threat, due to the fact that the brain stem is critical to healthy function. The prognosis is often very bleak, because these tumors are difficult to operate on and treat. For this reason, it is very important for individuals see a neurologist if they start to experience neurological symptoms, so that tumors in any part of the brain can be identified as early as possible.
The brain stem includes the medulla oblangata, pons, and midbrain. This portion is the part in the back at the base of the brain, right where the brain and spinal cord intersect. It controls a number of physical functions including breathing, heart rate, muscle movements, and a variety of other involuntary tasks, such as digestion. Damage to the brain stem can interfere with the function of the brain stem and spinal cord, causing a variety of problems.
Brain stem tumors, also called brain stem gliomas, can arise anywhere in the brain stem. Some early signs can include problems with control of the facial muscles, such as twitching, crossed eyes, and difficulty chewing and swallowing. A glioma will also lead to weakened muscles and a clumsy gait. The patient may feel like he or she is losing control of the body, which is actually a very accurate description of what happens as a tumor invades the brain stem.
Medical professionals diagnose these tumors with the use of medical imaging studies that are used to look inside the area of interest without invasive surgery. If a patient presents with symptoms that seem to suggest a brain stem tumor, he or she may be asked to submit to an MRI or CT scan. X-rays, spinal taps, and other diagnostic tests may be used as well to learn more about the tumor and its location.
Once a tumor is diagnosed, the healthcare professional can discuss treatment options with the patient. Typically, surgical removal of tumors is not an option, because they are very difficult and often impossible to remove. As a result, radiation treatment in an attempt to shrink the tumor is usually the best choice for treatment. The patient may also be encouraged to use physical therapy to condition his or her body so that as function starts to decline, the patient will have better control. If the tumor does not respond to radiation, care is primarily palliative, aimed at keeping the patient comfortable.