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Spinal cord tumor

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 6, 2023.

Overview

A spinal tumor is a growth that develops within your spinal canal or within the bones of your spine. A spinal cord tumor, also called an intradural tumor, is a spinal tumor that that begins within the spinal cord or the covering of the spinal cord (dura). A tumor that affects the bones of the spine (vertebrae) is called a vertebral tumor.

Spinal cord tumors may be classified as one of three different types depending on where they occur relative to the protective membranes of the spinal cord.

These are the main types of intradural tumors:

Tumors from other parts of the body can spread (metastasize) to the vertebrae, the supporting network around the spinal cord or, in rare cases, the spinal cord itself.

Spinal tumors or growths of any kind can lead to pain, neurological problems and sometimes paralysis. A spinal tumor can be life-threatening and cause permanent disability.

Treatment for a spinal tumor may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other medications.

Spinal cord tumor

Intramedullary tumors are growths that develop in the supporting (glial) cells within the spinal cord.

Symptoms

Spinal cord tumors can cause different signs and symptoms, especially as tumors grow. The tumors may affect your spinal cord or the nerve roots, blood vessels or bones of your spine. Signs and symptoms may include:

Back pain is a common early symptom of spinal tumors. Pain may also spread beyond your back to your hips, legs, feet or arms and may worsen over time — even with treatment.

Spinal tumors progress at different rates depending on the type of tumor.

When to see a doctor

There are many causes of back pain, and most back pain isn't caused by a tumor. But because early diagnosis and treatment are important for spinal tumors, see your doctor about your back pain if:

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience:

Causes

It's not clear why most spinal tumors develop. Experts suspect that defective genes play a role. But it's usually not known whether such genetic defects are inherited or simply develop over time. They might be caused by something in the environment, such as exposure to certain chemicals. In some cases, however, spinal cord tumors are linked to known inherited syndromes, such as neurofibromatosis 2 and von Hippel-Lindau disease.

Spinal anatomy

The spinal anatomy of a typical adult

Nervous system

The spinal cord is housed within the spinal canal, a hollow chamber within the vertebrae (spinal canal). It extends from the base of the skull to the lower back.

Risk factors

Spinal cord tumors are more common in people who have:

Complications

Spinal tumors can compress spinal nerves, leading to a loss of movement or sensation below the location of the tumor. This can sometimes cause changes in bowel and bladder function. Nerve damage may be permanent.

However, if caught early and treated aggressively, it may be possible to prevent further loss of function and regain nerve function. Depending on its location, a tumor that presses against the spinal cord itself may be life-threatening.

Diagnosis

Spinal tumors sometimes might be overlooked because they're not common and their symptoms resemble those of more common conditions. For that reason, it's especially important that your doctor know your complete medical history and perform both general physical and neurological exams.

If your doctor suspects a spinal tumor, these tests can help confirm the diagnosis and pinpoint the tumor's location:

MRI scan of spinal cord tumor

Treatment

Ideally, the goal of spinal tumor treatment is to eliminate the tumor completely, but this goal may be complicated by the risk of permanent damage to the spinal cord and surrounding nerves. Doctors also must take into account your age and overall health. The type of tumor and whether it arises from the structures of the spine or spinal canal or has spread to your spine from elsewhere in your body also must be considered in determining a treatment plan.

Treatment options for most spinal tumors include:

Spinal tumor neck surgery

Using microsurgical techniques, a tumor is gently teased out of the spinal cord in the cervical spine.

Alternative medicine

Although there aren't any alternative medicines that have been proved to cure cancer, some complementary or alternative treatments may help relieve some of your symptoms.

One such treatment is acupuncture. During acupuncture treatment, a practitioner inserts tiny needles into your skin at precise points. Research shows that acupuncture may be helpful in relieving nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture might also help relieve certain types of pain in people with cancer.

Be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of complementary or alternative treatment that you're thinking of trying with your doctor. Some treatments, such as herbal remedies, could interfere with medicines you're taking.

Coping and support

Learning that you have a spinal tumor can be overwhelming. But you can take steps to cope after your diagnosis. Consider trying to:

Preparing for an appointment

If you have signs and symptoms that are common to spinal tumors — such as persistent, unexplained back pain, weakness or numbness in your legs, or changes in your bowel or bladder function, call your doctor promptly.

After your doctor examines you, you may be referred to a doctor who is trained to diagnose and treat cancer (oncologist), brain and spinal cord conditions (neurologist, neurosurgeon or spine surgeon), or disorders of the bones (orthopedic surgeon).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from the doctor.

What you can do

Questions to ask your doctor at your initial appointment include:

Questions to ask an oncologist or neurologist include:

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask any additional questions that may come up during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Thinking about your answers ahead of time can help you make the most of your appointment. A doctor who sees you for a possible spinal tumor may ask:

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