Diagnosing spinal cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on June 7, 2022.

A comprehensive spinal cancer treatment plan begins with an accurate diagnosis. Our team of cancer experts uses a variety of imaging technologies and tools designed for diagnosing spinal cancer. Once we have made an accurate spinal cancer diagnosis and determined the location, type and grade of the tumor, we’ll work with you to formulate a treatment plan tailored to your needs, preferences and goals. Because of the complexities of spinal tumors, treatment should be based on a tailored, individualized approach.

Tests designed for diagnosing spinal cancer include:

Lumbar puncture

A lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap) is a procedure in which a needle is inserted into the lower part of the spinal column in order to remove cerebrospinal fluid, or to inject medication. We may use a lumbar puncture to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for examination in the laboratory. It may also be used to inject medications, such as spinal anesthesia or chemotherapy drugs.

Nuclear medicine bone scan

Nuclear medicine bone scans involve injecting a small dose of radioactive material into a blood vessel, where it travels through the bloodstream, gathers in the bones and is detected by a scanner through nuclear imaging. By capturing images of bones on a computer screen or film, a nuclear medicine bone scan may reveal if spinal cancer has spread to the bone, as well as the location of the cancer.

Other imaging tests

Imaging tests for spinal cancer produce pictures of the spine to determine the location and grade of spinal tumors. A contrast dye may be used to highlight the spinal cord and nerve structures. Other imaging tests used in spinal cancer diagnosis include:

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