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A brain cyst is a type of abnormal fluid-filled sac in the brain. They are generally benign (not cancer). Benign also means that the growth does not spread to other parts of the body. A cyst may contain blood, pus, or other material. In the brain, cysts sometimes contain cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF normally bathes and cushions the brain and spinal cord. Often, brain cysts begin before birth.
Even if a brain cyst is not cancer, it can still cause problems. The cyst may press against brain tissue and cause symptoms, such as headache, vision problems, or nausea. If this happens, you may need surgery to remove the cyst. In some cases, if the cyst is small and not growing and is not likely to cause symptoms, your healthcare provider may advise watching it instead of surgery.
There are different types of brain cysts:
Many brain cysts form during the first few weeks when a baby is growing in the womb. Rarely, an arachnoid cyst might form because of a head injury or other trauma to the brain. In other cases, there may be links between a brain cyst and a benign or cancerous tumor. In many cases, the cause of a brain cyst is unknown.
The symptoms generally depend on which part of the brain the cyst is growing in. In some cases, a small cyst may not cause any symptoms. Some cysts are “silent” (cause no symptoms) until they grow large. In some cases, you may have a problem related to the area of the brain the cyst is growing in. In other cases, the symptoms may be due to blockage of the normal flow of CSF. This can cause increased pressure on the brain (intracranial pressure).
Symptoms can happen a bit differently in each person, but can include:
In some cases, your healthcare provider may discover a brain cyst when it shows up on an imaging scan done for another reason. In other cases, you may be having symptoms related to the cyst. Your primary healthcare provider may refer you to a neurologist. This is a healthcare provider who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the central nervous system. Or you may be referred to a neurosurgeon. This is a surgeon who performs brain or spinal cord surgery.
The process to diagnose a cyst starts with a medical history and a physical exam. Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and past medical conditions. He or she may also ask about your family’s medical history. The physical exam may include a neurologic exam. Imaging tests may be done to look at the brain. Contrast dye may be used to help show more detail in the images. The tests may include:
Scans may be repeated over time to learn if the cyst is growing.
If a brain cyst is causing problems, your healthcare provider may advise removing it with surgery. If the cyst is not causing symptoms and it is not growing, your healthcare provider may choose to watch it closely with repeated brain scans. Treatment can vary by the type of cyst. For example:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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