Symptoms & Diagnosis

Pictured: George Krol

Unlike brain tumors, which usually cause symptoms on only one side of the body, tumors in or around the spine usually cause symptoms on both sides of the body. These symptoms may include weakness or numbness in both legs. If the tumor’s location is close to major nerves, the nerves’ function — receiving and sending messages between the body and the brain — may become disrupted. This can affect the arms or legs and cause pain, numbness, or weakness.

Tumors in this region of the body can also cause compression fractures, which occur when the pressure of a growing tumor causes the vertebra bones to break. Other symptoms of spine tumors include neurologic problems, such as difficulty walking, may occur as the result of the tumor pressing on the spinal cord and nerve roots, and interference with the blood supply to the spinal cord.


To diagnose a spine tumor and determine its exact location, a variety of advanced imaging technologies are used, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT). Other diagnostic techniques, such as myelography, are sometimes used. This is an x-ray taken immediately after an injection of dye into the spinal fluid space. The dye outlines the cancerous area, which helps the doctors see the tumor and make a diagnosis. Myelography can often help direct stereotactic radiosurgery, a type of external radiation therapy that uses special equipment to position the patient and precisely deliver a single large dose of radiation to a tumor.

A biopsy of the tumor may also be necessary. It may be possible for doctors to use a minimally invasive procedure known as CT-guided biopsy. (1) During the procedure, a sample of tissue or fluid is removed for biopsy through a fine needle. The radiologist guides the needle toward the cancerous area, using the CT scan to increase precision.