A spinal tumor is a growth of cells (mass) in or surrounding the spinal cord.
Tumor - spinal cord
Any type of tumor may occur in the spine, including:
- Leukemia (blood cancer that starts in the white cells in the bone marrow)
- Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph tissue)
- Myeloma (blood cancer that starts in the plasma cells of the bone marrow)
A small number of spinal tumors occur in the nerves of the spinal cord itself.
Tumors that start in spinal tissue are called primary spinal tumors. Tumors that spread to the spine from some other place (metastasize) are called secondary spinal tumors. Tumors may spread to the spine from the breast, prostate, lung, and other areas.
The cause of primary spinal tumors is unknown. Some primary spinal tumors occur with certain inherited gene mutations.
Spinal tumors can occur:
- Inside the spinal cord (intramedullary)
- In the membranes (meninges) covering the spinal cord (extramedullary - intradural)
- Between the meninges and bones of the spine (extradural)
Or, tumors may extend from other locations. Most spinal tumors are extradural.
As it grows, the tumor can affect the:
- Blood vessels
- Bones of the spine
- Nerve roots
- Spinal cord cells
The tumor may press on the spinal cord or nerve roots, causing damage. With time, the damage may become permanent.
The symptoms depend on the location, type of tumor, and your general health. Tumors that have spread to the spine from another site (metastatic tumors) often progress quickly. Primary tumors often progress slowly over weeks to years.
Tumors in the spinal cord usually cause symptoms, sometimes over large portions of the body. Tumors outside the spinal cord may grow for a long time before causing nerve damage.
Symptoms may include:
- Abnormal sensations or loss of sensation, especially in the legs (may be in the knee or ankle, with or without shooting pain down the leg)
- Back pain that gets worse over time, is often in the middle or lower back, is usually severe and not relieved by pain medicine, gets worse when lying down or straining (such as during a cough or sneeze), and may extend to the hips or legs
- Cold sensation of the legs, cool fingers or hands, or coolness of other areas
- Loss of bowel control
- Bladder leakage, muscle contractions, twitches, or spasms (fasciculations)
- Muscle function loss
- Muscle weakness (decreased muscle strength) in the legs that causes falls, makes walking difficult, and may get worse (progressive)
Exams and Tests
A nervous system (neurological) examination may help pinpoint the location of the tumor. The health care provider may also find the following during an exam:
- Abnormal reflexes
- Increased muscle tone
- Loss of pain and temperature sensation
- Muscle weakness
- Tenderness in the spine
These tests may confirm spinal tumor:
- Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) examination
- Cytology (cell studies) of CSF
- Spinal CT
- Spine MRI
- Spine x-ray
The goal of treatment is to reduce or prevent nerve damage caused by pressure on (compression of) the spinal cord.
Treatment should be given quickly. The more quickly symptoms develop, the sooner treatment is needed to prevent permanent injury. Any new or unexplained back pain in a patient with cancer should be thoroughly investigated.
- Corticosteroids (dexamethasone) may be given to reduce inflammation and swelling around the spinal cord.
- Emergency surgery may be needed to relieve compression on the spinal cord. Some tumors can be completely removed. In other cases, part of the tumor may be removed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
- Radiation therapy may be used with, or instead of, surgery.
- Chemotherapy has not been proven effective against most primary spinal tumors, but it may be recommended in some cases, depending on the type of tumor.
- Physical therapy may be needed to improve muscle strength and the ability to function independently.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.
The outcome varies depending on the tumor. Early diagnosis and treatment usually leads to a better outcome.
Nerve damage often continues, even after surgery. Although some amount of permanent disability is likely, early treatment may delay major disability and death.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have a history of cancer and develop severe back pain that is sudden or gets worse.
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you develop new symptoms, or your symptoms get worse during the treatment of a spinal tumor.
Deangelis LM. Tumors of the central nervous system. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 189.
Moron FE, Delumpa A, Szklaruk J. Spinal tumors. In: Haaga JR, Boll DT, eds. CT and MRI of the Whole Body. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 30.
Sciubba DM, Baaj AA, Gokaslan ZL. Spinal cord compression. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 49.
- Last reviewed on 8/15/2016
- Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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