June 9, 2021

Epilepsy and brain tumors: what you need to know

About Epilepsy

Having a brain tumor and seizures is very common. Read about the link between epilepsy and brain tumors and how it’s treated.

Almost half of people first find out that they have a brain tumor after having epileptic seizures. When you begin having seizures, your doctor may send you to get tests such as an MRI. This brain imaging procedure may show there is a tumor that's causing the seizures.

Being told that you have epilepsy and brain tumors may feel very overwhelming. Learning about the link between brain tumors and seizures helps you to understand what's happening and get more clarity about treatment options.

Here's everything you need to know about epilepsy and brain tumors.

A woman with epilepsy and brain tumors looking into the distance

What is an epileptic seizure?

Your brain normally works by sending small, controlled electrical signals between billions of cells in your brain. An epileptic seizure happens when there’s a sudden discharge of electricity that puts those signals out of balance. It can cause you to lose consciousness or behave in unusual ways.

Dig deeper: What happens in your brain during a seizure?

Can brain tumors cause seizures?

Yes, brain tumors are a common cause of epileptic seizures. It is believed that somewhere between 40% and 60% of people who have brain tumors will have at least one seizure.

There are different theories as to why brain tumors cause seizures:

  • Pressure caused by the tumor on the surrounding brain cells
  • The tumor itself may alter the chemical processes in the brain and make it more likely you’ll have a seizure
  • Abnormally developed brain cells around the tumor may fire off electrical signals which interrupt electrical signals in the rest of the brain

The location where the tumor is growing on your brain will also affect the kind of seizures that you have.

Types of brain tumors and seizures

Certain types of brain tumor are more likely to cause seizures than others. Generally speaking, epileptic seizures are more often associated with ‘low grade’ brain tumors. This means tumors which grow slowly and which might be described as ‘benign’ (not life-threatening).

Seizures are very common in people who have the following kinds of tumors:

  • Glioneuronal tumors (70-80% have seizures)
  • Glioma (60-75%)
  • Meningioma (25-50 %)
  • Brain metastases (20-35%)

If you are unsure about which kind of tumor you have or what the name means, speak to your treatment team.

Know your treatment team: What’s an epileptologist?

How are brain tumors and seizures diagnosed?

If you have started having seizures your doctor may use different techniques to understand the underlying cause of the seizures. These include:

  • MRI scans (which can show you where the tumor is growing in your brain)
  • EEG scan (which detect electrical patterns in your brain)
  • CT scans (x-ray images of your brain)
  • Spinal tap/lumbar puncture (collecting spinal fluid which can indicate what’s happening in your brain)

How are epilepsy and brain tumors treated?

Everybody's treatment pathway is different depending on the kind of tumor you have as well as the kinds of seizures you are experiencing.

But, speaking broadly, there are two kinds of treatment:

  • Brain surgery: The tumor is surgically removed. This helps to stop seizures in as much as 90% of people. 
  • Anti seizure medication for brain tumors: Certain anti-epilepsy drugs have been shown to be most effective for helping control seizures in people with brain tumor-related epilepsy. Levetiracetam and valproic acid are the most widely used.

Around one in three people with epilepsy find that their seizures are not controlled with anti epileptic drugs - this is called refractory epilepsy.

Living with epilepsy and brain tumors

The goal for anyone with epilepsy is to achieve seizure freedom. And there is plenty of support and tools that you can use to start working towards that goal. 

You might find it helpful to download the free Epsy App where you can record your seizures, describe any triggers and set-up your medication plan with helpful reminders. It can help you manage your epilepsy and give your doctor more information about your personal experience. Try the app today