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female patient with spinal tumor diagnosis

A spinal tumor diagnosis is usually made after a patient experiences symptoms like neck or back pain. Because there are no general screening tests available to facilitate the early detection of spine cancer, education is an especially important component of the diagnostic process. By learning to identify and be vigilant for possible signs of spine cancer, and by promptly consulting with a physician when any concerns arise, a patient can take proactive steps to protect their health.  

The symptoms of spinal cancer can vary but may include:

  • Neck or back pain that travels to other areas of the body or worsens at night
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Difficulty walking
  • Reduced sensitivity to pain, cold and heat

Diagnostic tests for spinal cancer

When symptoms are present, some of the procedures used by medical professionals to rule out or confirm a spinal tumor diagnosis include:

Neurological examinations 

Tests that evaluate brain and spinal cord function focus on examining reflexes, muscle strength, vision, eye and mouth movement, balance, coordination and alertness. For example, a physician may:

  • Ask the patient to squeeze their hand
  • Tap the patient’s knee with a rubber hammer to assess reflexes
  • Check hearing abilities
  • Shine a light to view the back of the patient’s eyes

The physician will also ask questions regarding the patient’s medical history and the timing, frequency and severity of symptoms.

Imaging tests 

There are multiple imaging methods that can be used to create detailed pictures of the spine and provide vital information about suspected tumors. These include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans – A series of X-ray images are taken from multiple angles around the body and used to create cross-sectional images of the spine.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – Computer-generated radio waves and a magnetic field are used to produce detailed images of tissues and organs.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans – A small, safe amount of radioactive glucose is injected into a vein, which allows a special scanner to create clear images of the areas where the glucose was absorbed.
  • Digital X-ray imaging – Radiation waves called X-rays are passed through the body and picked up by a sensor, which displays bones, tissues and organs in varying shades of white and black according to their density.
  • Spinal angiography – While the patient is under anesthesia, a contrast dye is injected into an artery and a clinician captures images of the blood flow to and from the suspected spinal tumor.

Lumbar punctures (spinal tap)

A small, hollow needle is inserted between the spinal vertebrae and used to obtain a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid, which a pathologist can evaluate under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.

Liquid molecular biopsy

This noninvasive blood test for a specific DNA biomarker can provide important information about the genetic makeup of a spinal tumor.

Surgical or open biopsy (craniotomy) 

If images indicate that a spinal tumor can be treated with surgery, a surgeon can perform a procedure to obtain a small sampling of tumor cells, which is evaluated immediately for the presence of cancer and used to guide the surgeon’s approach in removing all or a portion of the mass.

Next-generation sequencing

The DNA and RNA molecules of cancer cells found in a tumor tissue sample are analyzed to obtain information about their genetic alterations, which can inform both diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Moffitt’s approach to diagnosing spinal cancer

The Neuro-Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center—Florida’s No. 1 cancer hospital—offers a streamlined spinal cancer diagnostic process that may include advanced neurological examination techniques, the latest diagnostic imaging technologies and minimally invasive surgical procedures.

If a spinal tumor diagnosis is confirmed, our multispecialty team can create an individualized plan for treatment. In a single, convenient location, Moffitt patients have access to all aspects of comprehensive cancer care, including board-certified physicians and robust clinical trials, as well as interactive animated videos and other information designed to facilitate an understanding of a spinal tumor diagnosis.

For the best cancer outcomes, choose Moffitt first. If you’d like to have symptoms evaluated by an expert or learn more about the spinal tumor diagnostic process, contact Moffitt Cancer Center at 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. We accept patients with or without referrals, and our team will respond to your request as soon as possible to ensure timely care.


Cancer Research UK: Physical Examination


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