Brain Tumor Diagnosis

There are many factors to determining the diagnosis of a brain tumor. Usually, initial symptoms lead to a thorough physical examination and a neurological exam.


Initial Symptoms

  • Persistent headaches
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting or convulsions
  • Changes in sight, speech or hearing
  • Weakness or loss of sensation of arms, legs, hands or feet

If these symptoms a present, a physical exam is then conducted by a neurologist. This includes a review of a patient's medical history and neurological tests to assess.

Neurological Test

  • Balance and coordination
  • Abstract thinking and memory
  • Eye movement
  • Sensory perception
  • Reflexes
  • Control of facial muscles
  • Head and tongue movement

Based on the examination findings and other factors (age, medical condition, the type of cancer suspected and severity of symptoms) one or more diagnostic tests will be performed. Diagnostic tests are non-invasive, high-resolution medical imaging applications.


Diagnostic Tests

Computed Tomography Scan (CT or CAT scan)

This CT reveals brain abnormalities. This is a sophisticated X-ray machine linked to a computer to create two-dimensional images. It is painless and can be completed in ten minutes or less. Occasionally, a special dye is injected into the bloodstream to provide more detail.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scan (MRI)

The MRI, which uses magnetic fields (not X-rays) provides detailed images. It is more sensitive than the CT in detecting a brain tumor's presence. The MRI is a preferential imaging test because it outlines the normal brain structure in unique detail. This procedure is slightly more time consuming as the patient lies inside a cylinder-type machine for about one hour. A special dye may also be injected in the bloodstream during the procedure (MRI angiogram) to distinguish tumors from healthy tissue.


Other Scans or Diagnostic Tests

Additional scans include magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) or positron emission tomography (PET) . These scans assist in determining brain tumor activity and blood flow or the effect on brain activity.


Reveal changes in the skull bones, indicating a tumor. Because this is a far less sensitive test than scans, it is used less.

Lumbar puncture (or spinal tap)

Obtains spinal fluid, to determine presence of tumor cells.

Digital holography

Provides a three-dimensional map of the tumor and surrounding brain structure.


An X-ray of the spine to detect spinal cord tumors.

Radionuclide brain scintigraphy

Views capillaries feeding the tumor after highlighting them with a radioactive substance.



Several of the tests can suggest the presence of a tumor. The biopsy (a piece of tumor which is surgically removed) provides the definitive diagnosis. Depending on the tumor, the biopsy also reveals the type and grade of the tumor and assists in potential treatment. The sample tumor is analyzed by a pathologist (a doctor specializing in tissue cell and organ evaluation) to diagnose disease.