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Spinal Cord Tumor Overview

A tumor forms when an abnormal cell grows to form a mass of abnormal cells. Spinal cord tumors are tumors that form in the spinal cord or in the area around it.

A spinal cord tumor may be cancer (malignant) or noncancer (benign). A benign tumor can often cause pain and discomfort because it pushes on the spinal cord or nerves.

A spinal cord tumor may be called primary. This means the cancer started in the spinal cord. Or the tumor may be secondary. This means the cancer started somewhere else in the body and spread to the spinal cord. Most of the time, spinal cord tumors are secondary tumors. A spinal cord tumor is often a cancer of the lung, breast, prostate, or another cancer that has spread throughout the body to reach the spine.

Spinal cord tumors are sometimes caused by a genetic disorder, such as neurofibromatosis.

Facts about spinal cord tumors

Spinal cord tumors are fairly uncommon. It's much more common to develop a brain tumor than a tumor on the spinal cord. A spinal cord tumor may form inside the spinal cord itself or around the bones that make up the spine. Spinal cord tumors can cause problems with the nearby nerves, blood vessels, and bones.

Some spinal cord tumors can be successfully treated. The earlier you tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms, get a diagnosis, and start treatment, the better your outcome is likely to be. But spinal cord tumors often cause long-lasting (permanent) damage to the nerves and result in disability.

Types of spinal cord tumors

Spinal cord tumors affect many different areas and come in many different types, including:

  • Medulloblastomas. These tumors start in the brain and metastasize to the spine. They are most common in children

  • Gliomas (ependymomas, astrocytomas, or gangliogliomas). These are tumors that form in cells called glial cells.

  • Chordomas. These form in the spine and can push against it.

  • Schwannomas. These start inside the peripheral nerves.

  • Meningiomas. These tumors start in the tissues around the spinal cord (meninges).

  • Metastatic (secondary) tumors. These are cancers that have spread from the lung, breast, prostate, or other organs.

  • Lymphoma. This is a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes.

  • Multiple myeloma. This is a cancer of the bone marrow.

Symptoms

Spinal cord tumors can cause many different symptoms:

  • Inability to control the bowels or bladder

  • Weak muscles that you can't seem to control, so that you fall or have trouble walking

  • Muscle spasms

  • An unusual feeling or sensation in the legs

  • Feeling cold in the hands, fingers, or legs

Spinal cord tumors often cause back pain, including:

  • Feeling worse when you strain in any way, sneeze, or cough

  • Increased pain when you lie down

  • Pain that’s specific to the spine

  • Extreme pain that isn't improved by taking medicine

  • Pain that feels worse as time passes

  • Pain that spreads into the arms, feet, legs, or hips

Diagnosis

A healthcare provider will usually do a neurologic exam to diagnose a spinal cord tumor. The exam will look for these signs:

  • Pain in the area of the spine

  • Inability to feel pain, heat, or cold

  • An abnormal reflex response

These tests can help your healthcare provider see a spinal cord tumor and find out more information about it:

  • Imaging tests of the spine, such as a CT scan or MRI

  • Hormone tests

  • Biopsy, removing a small piece of the tumor to determine what type it is

  • Exam of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the cells in the fluid

Treatment

Treatment for a spinal cord tumor is different for everyone. Treatment depends on the type of tumor, its location, and your overall health. These are treatment options:

  • Surgery to remove all or part of the tumor

  • Radiation therapy, which is sometimes used in addition to surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Corticosteroid medicines to lessen swelling

Some types of spinal tumors require radiation of the whole spine. This procedure, called craniospinal radiation, can lead to fewer red blood cells (anemia), and other side effects. When there is radiation to the lumbar spine, fertility needs to be considered. 

Prevention

Since it's not understood why most primary spinal cord tumors develop, experts don't know how to prevent them.

Managing spinal cord tumors

Working with your doctor can help you to ease your symptoms so that you feel more comfortable before and during treatment.

After your treatment, you may need physical therapy to strengthen muscles and help them work properly again.

During the course of your treatment, always tell your doctor or seek emergency help if your symptoms suddenly become more severe or change in some way.

Finding additional resources

Joining a support group for people with cancer or spinal cord problems can be helpful when you're battling a spinal cord tumor.

To find out more information about spinal cord tumors, you may want to contact:

Key points to remember

If you are currently undergoing treatment for any type of cancer and develop back pain, you should let your doctor know right away. It's also a good idea to contact your doctor about any back pain that worsens or doesn't go away with time.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Jasmin, Luc, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2017
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