Spinal Cord Tumors
A spinal cord tumor is a mass of tissue in the spinal cord made up of abnormal cells. Tumors that originate in the spinal cord itself are called primary tumors. Tumors that invade the spine from another part of the body are called secondary, or metastatic, tumors.
Benign tumors do not infiltrate tissues of the spinal cord or surrounding structures. Cancerous tumors can invade surrounding tissues to varying degrees and spread to other parts of the body, making them more difficult to treat.
How common are spinal cord tumors?
Primary spinal cord tumors are rare. Metastatic tumors are much more common, accounting for about 85 percent of all tumors in the spine and spinal cord.
Who gets spinal cord tumors?
Spinal cord tumors are more common in people who have a prior history of cancer. Any type of cancer can spread to the spine, but cancers that may be more likely to affect the spine include breast, lung, and prostate.
Primary spinal cord tumors have been linked to neurofibromatosis 2 and Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which are inherited syndromes.
How are spinal cord tumors diagnosed?
Spinal cord tumors are diagnosed through imaging tests, primarily MRI and CT scans, and a complete neurological examination to test your spinal cord function. A biopsy, where part of the tumor is removed and examined under a microscope, is necessary to classify the type of tumor.
The symptoms of a spinal cord tumor depend on the location and type of tumor. They may develop suddenly, or happen gradually and become worse over time.
- Back pain, which sometimes spreads to hips, legs, feet and arms
- Weakness, numbness or lack of coordination in arms and legs
- Loss of bladder or bowel function
- Progressive paralysis
These symptoms are shared with several other disorders and health conditions, and their presence alone does not mean that you have a spinal cord tumor. Your doctor will need to conduct a full neurological examination and review your diagnostic imaging to make a definitive diagnosis.
If a tumor is benign or slow growing and not causing pain or disability, it may be best to monitor the tumor over time.
Surgery may be used to get a biopsy sample of the tumor or remove as much of the tumor as possible. CyberKnife and other types of radiation therapy use targeted beams of energy to destroy tumor tissue. Chemotherapy may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery and radiation to shrink or eliminate spinal cord tumors.
- Date of last review: November 28, 2016