Spinal cancer diagnosis and detection

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. Cancer experts use a variety of imaging technologies and tools designed for diagnosing spinal cancer.

Once an accurate spinal cancer diagnosis is made and the care team determines the location, type and grade of the spinal tumor, the care team will work with the patient to formulate a spinal cancer treatment plan tailored to his or her needs, preferences and goals. Because of the complexities of spinal tumors, treatment is based on a tailored, individualized approach.

Procedures for diagnosing spinal cancer

Tests designed for diagnosing spinal cancer are listed below.

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. The care team 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.

Biopsy of spine tumors

If a spine tumor or lesion is identified, the care team may perform a biopsy. This involves removing a small amount of tissue, bone or fluid from the suspicious area and examining it in a laboratory for signs of cancer.

Imaging tests for diagnosing spinal cancer

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. Imaging tests used in spinal cancer diagnosis include those listed below.

Spinal cancer X-ray

The care team may use an X-ray to evaluate the spine tumor size and location, and to look for signs of potential bone damage such as fractures.

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.

Computed tomography (CT) scans for spinal cancer

During a CT scan, the care team uses a machine that takes a series of X-rays to identify the location and size of a spinal tumor and to evaluate the health of bones and tissues in the tumor area.

PET/CT scan of the spine

The care team may perform a PET/CT scan to determine where cancer cells are located, and whether they've spread.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for spine tumors

MRI tests may help the care team identify the size, location and clinical features of spine tumors.

Can a spine MRI show cancer?

During an MRI, the care team will evaluate whether a spine tumor has the features of a benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous) tumor, and may then perform further testing, such as a biopsy, to confirm the diagnosis.

Next topic: How is spinal cancer treated?

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