A low grade astrocytoma is a rare type of tumor that develops in the brain or spinal cord. In these growths, groups of cells that usually aid in brain functions group together into a mass. These tumors are benign by definition, but it is possible that they will become cancerous as they develop. This condition progresses very slowly, and with proper treatment, the prognosis for recovery is very good.
Patients who have a low grade astrocytoma often present first with reoccurring moderate to severe headaches. In addition, numerous neurological symptoms have been associated with these tumors. Seizures are common in these patients, as are localized areas of weakness or numbness. When an astrocytoma is present in the spinal cord, back pain or partial paralysis is possible.
Many individuals presenting with neurological symptoms receive a lumbar puncture (LP) and, in some cases, a diagnostic electroencephalogram (EEG). Although this testing is standard, it is of little use in diagnosing a low grade astrocytoma. At best, the LP results rule out some differential diagnoses. The EEG is slightly more useful, but it can only detect a localized decrease in brain activity. While this finding is indicative of an astrocytoma, the diagnosis must be visually confirmed using either a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Despite the benign nature of a low grade astrocytoma, surgical removal of the tumor is often advised. This is done for the dual purposes of relieving patient symptoms and reducing the possibility of future cancer development. If the tumor is found to be completely inoperable or it is unlikely that all traces of the growth will be removed by surgery, radiation therapy is regularly recommended. During the interim, medications may be prescribed to reduce seizure activity or headaches.
Recovery from an uncomplicated surgical removal of a low grade astrocytoma can take up to six weeks. Headaches, itching around the surgical site, and vertigo are common following these procedures. Rarely, however, short-term memory loss and mood swings have been reported. Depending on the part of the brain or spine that was affected, physical therapy may be required during the healing process.
There is no universally recognized cause of low grade astrocytomas, but they are most frequently reported in patients between 20 to 50 years of age. Some speculation exists linking these tumors to radiation exposure. The increased frequency of these tumors in certain hereditary conditions, such as neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis, may also point to a genetic link.