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    Childhood Brain Tumors

    A brain tumor (scientifically referred to as an intracranial neoplasm) occurs when abnormal cells within the brain steadily increase to form a growing mass inside the head. Brain tumors can be divided into primary tumors, defined as tumors that start within the brain, or metastatic tumors, which are those that spread from somewhere else in the body. Most brain tumors that occur during childhood are categorized as primary.

    Primary brain tumors can have various different behaviors that cause different degrees of severity. The World Health Organization groups these different levels of severity into four grades. Grade I is a low-grade, primary brain tumor, which behaves in a more benign way. Grade IV is a high-grade, primary brain tumor, which behaves in a more aggressive or malignant (cancerous) way. Grades II and III are intermediate degrees of severity. All types of brain tumors can produce symptoms that vary depending on which in part of the brain the tumor is located. Symptoms may include headaches, seizures, visual impairment, vomiting, difficulty walking or incoordination. As the condition progresses without treatment, neurological symptoms may worsen to the point of unconsciousness and become life threatening.

    The root causes of most primary brain tumors are not fully known, but are believed to involve malfunctions in various regions of cellular DNA which regulate brain cell growth and development. Some primary brain tumors may occasionally occur in association with a number of inherited conditions such as neurofibromatosis or tuberous sclerosis. Diagnosis is usually made during a medical examination along with computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Occasionally a biopsy is performed.

    Treatment of childhood brain tumors may include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. If a brain tumor causes seizures, anticonvulsant medication may be needed. Dexamethasone, a type of steroid medication, may also be used to decrease swelling around the tumor. For most pediatric brain tumors, extensive surgical removal of the tumor is very crucial to achieving the best treatment outcome.

    For more information about childhood brain tumors, please visit the Virginia Children's Brain Tumor Society.

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