A benign (non-cancerous) brain tumour is a mass of cells that grows slowly in the brain. It usually stays in one place and does not spread.

Generally, brain tumours are graded from 1 to 4, according to their behaviour, such as how fast they grow and how likely they are to grow back after treatment. Grade 1 tumours are the least aggressive and grade 4 are the most harmful and cancerous. Cancerous tumours are described as "malignant". 

Low-grade brain tumours – grades 1 or 2 – tend to be slow-growing and unlikely to spread, so they're usually classed as benign. These tumours aren't cancerous and can often be successfully treated. However, they are still serious and can be life-threatening.

These pages focus on low-grade brain tumours. For information on grade 3 or 4 brain tumours, see the separate topic on high-grade (malignant) tumours.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of a low-grade or benign brain tumour depend on how big it is and where it is in the brain. Some slow-growing tumours may not cause any symptoms at first.

Common symptoms include:

  • severe, persistent headaches
  • seizures (fits)
  • persistent nausea, vomiting and drowsiness
  • mental or behavioural changes, such as memory problems or changes in personality
  • progressive weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, vision problems, or speech problems

See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of a brain tumour. While it's unlikely to be a tumour, it's best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.

Read more about the symptoms of benign brain tumours and diagnosing benign brain tumours.

Types of benign brain tumour

There are many different types of benign brain tumours, depending on the type of brain cells they have grown from. Examples include:

  • gliomas – tumours of the glial tissue, which binds nerve cells and fibres together
  • meningiomas – tumours of the membranes that cover the brain
  • acoustic neuromas – tumours in the acoustic nerve, which helps to control hearing and balance
  • craniopharyngiomas – tumours near the base of the brain that are most often diagnosed in children, teenagers and young adults
  • haemangioblastomas  tumours of the brain's blood vessels
  • pituitary adenomas – tumours of the pituitary gland (the pea-sized gland below the brain)

Who is affected

Brain tumours can affect people of any age, including children, although they tend to be more common in older adults.

About 4,300 people are diagnosed with benign brain tumours in the UK each year. The majority of these are low-grade gliomas.

In most cases, it's not clear why a person has developed a brain tumour, although it's thought that certain genetic conditions and previous radiotherapy treatment to the head may increase the risk of one developing.

Read more about the causes of benign brain tumours.

How benign brain tumours are treated

Treatment for benign brain tumours depends on the type and location of the tumour, and your outlook will depend on whether the tumour grows back and whether it mutates (changes).

Many benign brain tumours can be surgically removed and don't come back once they have been removed. However, some tumours can grow back or may become cancerous.

If surgery is not suitable, or it's not possible to remove the entire tumour, you may need other treatments such as radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy to destroy the abnormal cells in the brain.

Read more about treating a benign brain tumour

Recovering from a benign brain tumour

After treatment, you may be left with some persistent problems, such as seizures, difficulty walking, or speech problems. In these cases, you may need supportive treatment to help you recover from or adapt to these problems.

Many people are eventually able to return to most of their normal activities, including sports and work, but this can take time.

You can be referred to a counsellor if you want to talk about the emotional aspects of your diagnosis and treatment. There are also many organisations that can provide information and support, such as The Brain Tumour Charity and Brain Tumour Research.

Read more about recovering from treatment for a benign brain tumour.

Page last reviewed: 18/03/2015

Next review due: 18/03/2017