Brain Tumors: Tests and Diagnosis

What tests are used to diagnose a brain tumor?

Medical history and physical exam
The most important test is a neurologic medical history and physical exam. During this exam, the doctor will ask questions about your child's behavior and discuss any physical changes.

MRI of the brain and spine
Next, doctors at Children's Hospital Colorado will do an MRI, which is an imaging test that shows the inside of the brain and spine. This test does not use any radiation, so it is very safe. During the MRI, a dye is used (injected from a needle) to help doctors see details of the tumor. Most kids under 6 years old will need medication to help them sleep and remain still during the MRI. Older kids can be awake and even watch a movie during the test.

After the test, it is the goal of our program to give you MRI results immediately, so you don't have to wait until your next appointment for a diagnosis.

Spinal tap
Sometimes doctors need to do a spinal tap, also called a lumbar puncture, which is a "poke" in the lower back to drain out a teaspoon of cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). Your child's doctor will look at this fluid under the microscope to see if there are any tumor cells in it.

At Children's Colorado, we always try to do this test while your child is sleeping with the help of medication, so that the spinal tap doesn't cause pain or anxiety.

Finally, doctors at Children's Colorado often need to do surgery to figure out what kind of cells are growing inside the tumor. Our expert neurosurgeons and pathologists remove the tumor and then study it with special tests to determine exactly what kind it is.

Why choose Children's Colorado for brain tumor testing and diagnosis?

Children's Hospital Colorado is the only hospital in the surrounding eight states that can accurately diagnose brain tumors using the advanced technique of live tumor testing. Specialized gene testing helps guide new treatments that specifically target the genes of that tumor.

In addition, our technicians and nurses are skilled at helping your child feel comfortable during this sometimes scary procedure. The test requires children to lie still, and our child-friendly staff knows how to help kids relax.

Helping your family, from testing through diagnosis

We know that this is a scary time for children and their families, which is why we do everything possible to make the experience less stressful. From the minute you walk in the door, we'll meet with you and explain what a brain tumor is, discuss what to expect in our clinic, and set up support services for your family.

We'll also work closely with the MRI staff to meet our patients' needs and help calm your child's nerves before testing. We've found that child life therapy and creative art therapy helps reduce stress and prepare kids for tests and surgery.

Read about our Neuro-Oncology Program for the treatment of brain tumors.