What Happens When the Brain Swells From Cancer?

By The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center



Dealing with brain cancer involves navigating various complexities, and one significant concern is the potential swelling of the brain. We aim to shed light on what happens when the brain swells due to cancer, exploring the causes, symptoms, and available treatment options. 


What Is Intracranial Pressure? 

Typically, the skull maintains a specific level of pressure known as intracranial pressure (ICP). An escalation in ICP occurs when the pressure inside the skull increases. This heightened ICP, also referred to as brain swelling or cerebral edema, is a critical condition requiring prompt treatment. 


The brain, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are all within the skull. CSF is the fluid present in the cavities surrounding the brain. Any alterations to the brain, blood, or CSF levels can lead to an elevation in skull pressure. The body attempts to adapt to these changes to restore pressure to normal levels.


However, if the pressure continues to rise unchecked, it can result in severe issues as the brain struggles to function normally. In individuals with cancer, increased ICP may develop gradually over days to weeks.


What Causes the Brain To Swell? 

Specific brain tumors have the potential to initiate edema, characterized by swelling. This increased intracranial pressure (ICP) can be attributed to tumors originating within the brain or cancer that has metastasized to the brain. Cancers like melanoma, lung, breast, and kidney cancers that have spread to the brain are more likely to induce elevated ICP.


Radiation therapy is another factor contributing to increased ICP. The brain tissue swells due to the effects of radiation, and this can manifest either immediately (acute increased ICP) or later after radiation therapy concludes (delayed increased ICP). Certain treatments, such as surgery and radiotherapy, may initially exacerbate brain swelling.


Moreover, increased ICP can be a consequence of other cancers or their treatments leading to:


  • A blockage in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pathways, impeding normal CSF flow.
  • Infection of the brain or the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges).
  • Bleeding in the brain.
  • Swelling in the brain


What Are the Side Effects From Brain Swelling?

Brain swelling, a condition characterized by increased pressure within the brain, gives rise to a range of symptoms. The main symptoms may include weakness, persistent headaches, and speech difficulties. Here is a list of the possible symptoms and side effects of brain swelling: 


  • Headache: Headaches resulting from brain swelling can vary in intensity and may persist over time. They are often described as severe and unrelenting.


  • Drowsiness or Trouble Thinking: Increased pressure within the brain can lead to drowsiness or difficulty concentrating. Cognitive functions may be affected, causing challenges in thinking clearly.


  • Personality Change: Swelling in the brain might manifest as alterations in personality, including mood swings, irritability, or changes in behavior that are uncharacteristic for the individual.


  • Pain or Stiffness in Your Neck: Brain swelling can cause discomfort or stiffness in the neck, potentially due to increased pressure impacting the surrounding structures.


  • Vomiting: Persistent vomiting may occur as a response to increased intracranial pressure, reflecting the body's attempt to alleviate the pressure.


  • Seizures: Brain swelling can trigger seizures, which are sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain that may lead to various physical and mental effects.


  • Visual Disturbances: Changes in vision, such as double vision or blurred vision, may occur due to the impact of brain swelling on the optic nerves or other visual pathways.


  • Trouble Speaking: Increased intracranial pressure can affect regions of the brain responsible for speech and language, leading to difficulties in speaking clearly.


  • Memory Problems: Cognitive functions, including memory, may be impaired as a result of brain swelling, leading to memory problems and difficulties in retaining information.


  • Sudden High Blood Pressure: Elevated intracranial pressure can influence the autonomic nervous system, potentially causing a sudden increase in blood pressure.


  • Breathing Difficulties: Brain swelling may impact areas of the brain responsible for regulating breathing, resulting in difficulties in maintaining normal respiratory function.


  • Weakness: Generalized weakness or a sense of heaviness in the limbs may occur, affecting mobility and coordination.


  • Loss of Consciousness: In severe cases, increased intracranial pressure can lead to loss of consciousness, reflecting a critical and potentially life-threatening situation. 


How To Reduce Brain Swelling? 

Efficient management of cerebral edema involves a multi-faceted approach, employing medications and, in severe cases, surgical interventions. Tailored to the specific type and cause of brain swelling, medical professionals may prescribe various medications. These medications aim to alleviate fluid buildup and mitigate swelling within the brain tissues: 


  • Corticosteroids
  • Diuretics like Mannitol
  • Hypertonic Saline
  • Sedatives
  • Fever Reducers
  • Blood Thinners


In instances where cerebral edema demands more intricate interventions, neurosurgeons might resort to surgical procedures. Among these are: 


  • Craniectomy: a surgery removing part of the skull to alleviate pressure
  • Ventriculostomy: which involves creating a hole into a brain ventricle to facilitate cerebrospinal fluid drainage
  • Shunting: a procedure redirecting fluid from the brain into the body for safe reabsorption


Surgical removal of a brain lesion may also be considered, depending on the underlying causes of the cerebral edema. It is crucial to note that the choice of treatment is contingent on a thorough assessment of the individual's condition and collaborative decision-making between the medical team and the patient.


Brain Cancer Treatment Center 

Facing a brain tumor diagnosis can be overwhelming, but you don't have to fight it alone. At the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, we understand the unique challenges you face. Our team of specialized neuro-oncologists is dedicated to providing compassionate, comprehensive, and leading-edge care.


We offer a full spectrum of brain tumor treatment options including pediatric clinical trials. Our commitment to research and innovation ensures you have access to the latest advances in brain cancer treatment.


Don't wait. Book a consultation today. Together, we can create a personalized treatment plan that gives you the best chance for a positive outcome.


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Brain Swelling From Brain Cancer: Commonly Asked Questions 

How is brain swelling from brain cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosing brain swelling caused by brain cancer involves a comprehensive approach. Imaging studies such as MRI or CT scans are often employed to visualize the brain and identify any abnormalities.


Additionally, clinical assessments, neurological exams, and analysis of medical history contribute to an accurate diagnosis. Our experienced medical team at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center employs state-of-the-art diagnostic tools to provide a thorough evaluation and determine the most effective course of action.


What is the long-term outlook for someone with brain swelling caused by brain cancer?

The long-term outlook for someone with brain swelling caused by brain cancer depends on various factors, including:


  • The type and grade of the brain cancer: More aggressive cancers generally have a poorer prognosis.
  • The severity of the swelling: Extensive swelling can lead to more complications.
  • The patient's overall health and age: Underlying health conditions and age can influence treatment options and outcomes.
  • Response to treatment: Early diagnosis and effective treatment can significantly improve the long-term outlook.

It's important to remember that everyone's case is unique, and the best course of action is to discuss your specific situation and prognosis with your doctor.


How is brain swelling from brain cancer treated?

Treatment for brain swelling caused by brain cancer primarily focuses on:


  • Reducing the swelling: This often involves corticosteroids (steroids) to decrease inflammation and fluid buildup in the brain.
  • Treating the underlying cancer: This may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination depending on the specific case.


  • Managing symptoms: Medications can help address headaches, nausea, and other symptoms associated with brain swelling.


The specific treatment approach will be tailored to the individual's needs and the severity of the situation.