What is a Brain Stem Glioma?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2018
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A brain stem glioma is a tumor that appears in the lower part of the brain that attaches to the spinal cord. Gliomas are almost always malignant and have the potential to spread to other parts of the central nervous system and surrounding body tissue. Most tumors occur in children and young adults under the age of 20, whose brains and skulls are still in their developmental stages. A brain stem glioma can cause a range of physical symptoms, most noticeably headaches and muscle spasms in the face and neck. The prognosis for a glioma depends on its location and size, but ongoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments usually significantly improve the chances of recovery.

The brain stem is made up of three basic sections, the medulla oblongata, the pons, or the midbrain. Any section can be affected by a brain stem glioma, but most tumors are found in the pons region. Doctors are generally unsure what causes gliomas to emerge, though research suggests there may be an underlying genetic factor that predisposes some people to the condition. The fact that tumors are more common in young people might be related to abnormalities in the creation of nerve and chemical pathways in a still-developing brain.


As a brain stem glioma grows, it can put pressure on the nerves that control eye, mouth, and motor movement. As a result, a person may experience sudden muscle spasms that tend to increase in frequency as cancer progresses. An individual may also have frequent headaches as a tumor increases the level of pressure in the skull. An advanced brain stem glioma may lead to chronic fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and vision changes. It is important to seek diagnostic services at an oncology center or emergency room at the first signs of spasms and other abnormal symptoms.

An oncologist who suspects a glioma can conduct a series of tests to confirm a diagnosis. He or she can examine blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples to rule out infections and conduct a magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to look for signs of a cancerous growth. The doctor may decide to extract a small sample of tissue from the brain stem for laboratory testing, though a biopsy is not usually necessary to make a diagnosis. After determining the exact size and location of a brain stem glioma, the oncologist can determine the best course of treatment.

Surgery is generally not an option to remove a brain stem glioma due to the delicate nature of the surrounding tissue. Neurosurgeons usually decide that it is simply too risky to try to cut around vital nerves and blood vessels. Most patients are given medications to alleviate pain and intracranial pressure and scheduled for regular radiation or chemotherapy sessions. Smaller brain stem tumors tend to respond very well to treatment, and the cancer can often be fully eradicated from the body before it spreads. In severe cases, however, tumors persist despite treatment and ultimately lead to fatal complications.



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