How Are Brain and Spinal Tumors Diagnosed in Children?


Diagnosing brain and spinal tumors begins with a physical examination and complete medical history. In addition, a neurological examination is typically performed to establish symptoms and identify any possible problems. This exam assesses eye movements, sensation, hearing, sense of smell, motor function, swallowing, balance, and coordination.

Imaging studies are a key component of diagnosing brain and spinal tumors in children. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan may be used and conducted with or without contrast enhancement. Imaging studies can have certain risks, particularly among growing children.

Our experienced pediatric neurosurgeons recommend the study that’s best for your child. The study is performed in a Pediatric Neurosurgery Center with technology made for children and their unique needs.

Depending on the suspected childhood brain cancer diagnosis, additional procedures may be conducted that include:

  • A cerebral angiogram is a minimally invasive procedure that is conducted to visualize the blood vessels in the tumor, specifically for highly vascular tumors
  • A spinal tap (lumbar puncture), a procedure in which a special needle is inserted into the spinal canal, can be performed to acquire a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid may be tested to detect cancer cells or establish whether an infection or other problems are present.
  • A serum tumor marker test involves drawing blood to test for tumor markers that can reveal a particular tumor type
  • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) can detect the chemical composition of the tumor, which in turn can be used to identify the tumor type
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan can be used to detect malignant tumor cells by injecting radioactive glucose so that it can be traced in the body. Since they are more active than normal cells, malignant tumor cells take up more glucose for fuel.

A biopsy is usually conducted before or during surgery to provide a confirmed diagnosis and guide treatment decisions.

How are Brain and Spinal Tumors Treated in Children?


When we design a brain or spinal tumor treatment regimen for your child, we aim to choose therapies that are as effective as possible while minimizing the risk of long-term side effects.

Your child’s brain or spinal tumor treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • We carefully plan your child’s surgery to remove tumor tissue while sparing healthy tissue and areas of the brain needed for vital functions.
  • Our neurosurgeons have exceptional expertise in endoscopic neurosurgery, a minimally invasive approach using small telescopes and high-resolution video cameras to see into the brain and the spinal canal. Working through a small incision, we can perform operations for certain tumors with minimal brain or spinal cord trauma. This surgical approach results in a shorter hospital stay for your child and a quicker return to normal activities.
  • Your child may receive chemotherapy according to regimens specifically geared toward children.
  • We are conducting research to refine the delivery routes of chemotherapy and to develop more targeted anticancer agents that zero in on the specific molecules causing brain or spine tumor growth.
Radiation therapy
  • Because radiation to the brain and spine can cause developmental delays, we limit use of radiation therapy in children and only use it when better treatments are unavailable.
  • We use the lowest doses possible and continuously ensure radiation safety when needed.
Investigational Therapies
  • To make progress against pediatric brain and spine tumors, we need to develop and assess new treatments in clinical trials. Your child may have the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial of a novel therapy.



Cancerous (malignant) brain and spinal tumors are rare. A person’s lifetime chance of developing such a tumor is less than 1%. In children and adults combined, about 25,050 malignant brain and spinal tumors are diagnosed in the US each year.

Some brain tumors grow slowly, over years, and others grow quickly, over months. Fast-growing tumors invade nearby tissues and are called cancerous. They make up about a third of all brain tumors.

Spinal cord tumors are rare. The lifetime risk of developing a malignant spinal cord tumor is less than 1%.

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Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Brain and Spinal Tumor Treatment for Your Child

Recognizing and understanding the symptoms of brain and spinal tumors in children is the first step toward getting safe and effective care. Schedule an appointment with a specialist on NewYork-Presbyterian’s exceptional pediatric neurology and neurosurgery team. At NewYork-Presbyterian we have expertise in children’s brain and spinal tumors.