Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Spine Tumors

The exact cause of spine tumors is unknown, but certain factors can contribute to your chances of developing these types of tumors. Risk factors include:

  • Radiation exposure: People who have received radiation to the head are at higher risk for spine tumors. Most often this exposure comes from radiation therapy used to treat another type of cancer, such as leukemia during childhood
  • Family history: Most people with spine tumors don’t have a family history of the disease. But in rare cases, tumors can run in families
  • Prior history of cancer: Some cancers are more likely to spread to the brain or spine, including breast, lung, prostate and multiple myeloma

Other possible causes of tumors

Researchers have also looked at other factors that might increase your risk of developing a spine tumor, including:

  • Contact with certain chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, pesticides, and petroleum products
  • Infection with certain viruses

While there isn't yet any strong evidence linking these other factors to spine tumors, research on these possible links remains ongoing.


When your symptoms suggest a spine tumor, your physician will obtain a detailed medical history in addition to diagnostic testing and other procedures, including:

  • Physical exam: This exam will have a strong focus on reflexes, muscle strength, sensation, eye and mouth movement, vision, coordination and alertness
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An imaging technique that uses magnets and strong radio waves to take clear pictures of your spine to differentiate between a tumor and normal tissue
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan can be helpful to show detailed images of your spine
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans: PET scans allow your care team to identify an active, growing tumor in your spine
  • Angiogram: A series of X-rays taken using a special dye, help your care team see your tumor and the blood vessels that lead to it
  • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA): A special type of MRI that is a less invasive alternative to an angiogram
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): Removes a small amount of fluid that bathes your spinal cord so it can be tested

If you are diagnosed with a spine tumor, Northwestern Medicine is home to the very latest treatment options delivered by skilled cancer specialists. We take a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosing and treating these cancers. Together, we will develop a treatment plan, tailored to your specific condition, that offers the help and hope you need.