Spinal tumors are abnormal tissue growths within or surrounding the spinal cord. Spinal tumors can either be benign (slow growing or non-cancerous) or malignant (fast growing or cancerous). Primary spinal tumors are growths that originate in the spine, while metastatic spinal tumors are tumors resulting from cancer that spread from another part of the body.
With regard to the location, there are three common types of spinal tumors:
- Vertebral column tumors are tumors located in the vertebral column. These tumors are almost always metastatic, meaning they originated from tumors in another part of the body. In women, tumors in the vertebral column most commonly come from cancer in the breast or lung. In men, they most commonly come from cancer in the prostate or lung. Primary vertebral column tumors are rare and tend to grow very slowly.
- Intradural-Extramedullary tumors are located within the spinal canal, under the membrane covering the spinal cord, but outside of the spinal cord. They are usually benign and slow-growing. These tumors almost always fall into one of two categories:
- Meningiomas come from the membrane covering the spinal cord. They are common in middle aged and elderly women.
- Nerve sheath tumors come from the nerve roots.
- Intramedullary tumors come from inside the spinal cord. Due to their location, surgical removal can be difficult.
The most frequently seen spine tumors include:
- Bone cyst
Spinal tumors can be difficult to detect without seeing a doctor. Some people have tumors for years without experiencing severe symptoms. The most common symptoms for spinal tumors are:
- Pain in the back or neck, followed by weakness in the arms and/or legs, or a change in bowel or bladder habits or tingling and numbness in the arms and/or legs.
- Back pain combined with a loss of appetite, fever, chills, vomiting, shakes or unexplained weight loss.
- Severe pain when pressing on a specific area on the spine.
- In a person that has been diagnosed before with a tumor in another part of the body, back or neck pains should be checked thoroughly by a physician to rule out a metastatic tumor.
Wellness & Prevention
Spinal tumors can be difficult or impossible to prevent. This is in large part because many of the causes of primary spinal tumors are unknown. Many are believed to be genetic. Some spinal tumors are more common in people with weakened immune systems.
Risk of developing many cancers, including cancerous spinal tumors, can be lowered by lifestyle changes. Quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are some of the best ways to decrease your risk of cancer. However, there is no known way to prevent all spinal tumors.
It’s very important to receive an accurate spinal tumor diagnosis. Diagnosis can involve a physical exam, blood tests and imaging.
During a physical exam, your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms, and will also check your spinal cord function.
Blood tests can check your liver and kidney function, as well as other organs. This is especially important if you need to have surgery.
There are several imaging tests that your doctor may use to diagnose your spinal tumor:
- X-rays can show whether there are any spinal fractures. However, because X-rays cannot depict soft tissue growth, additional imaging is usually necessary.
- Computed Tomography (CT scan) uses a combination of X-ray and computer imaging to produce detailed pictures of your vertebral column.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI scan) is the most useful imaging test when diagnosing a spinal tumor. This scan uses radio waves and magnetic fields to look for tumors.
If a tumor is detected, in most cases, you will need a biopsy. A biopsy determines what type of tumor you have. A biopsy is usually done by inserting a needle through the skin and having a piece of the tissue from your tumor analyzed by a pathologist. Rarely, a biopsy may be performed on a spinal tumor using open surgery.
The exact treatment for spinal tumors depends on the type of tumor, the number of tumors and any additional conditions that the individual has.
Until recently it was believed that surgical intervention for spinal tumors should be considered only as the last resource, when all the other treatments have failed, or not at all. In the recent 10 to 20 years, it has been shown that in certain type of tumors, surgical intervention combined with radiation therapy is better than radiation therapy alone. In other tumors, surgical intervention may be the only treatment option. Because of this, it’s best to visit with a surgeon trained in evaluation of tumors of the spine before any other treatment is undertaken.
If a tumor is discovered before the individual begins experiencing symptoms, one of the approaches can be simply monitoring the tumor without any immediate treatment. Periodic MRI or CT scans can help the doctors and patient remain aware of any growth. If the tumor is non-cancerous and not causing any symptoms, removing or treating the tumor isn’t always necessary.
If a tumor is cancerous or causing pressure on the spinal cord, treatment may be necessary. Treatments may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling around the spinal cord.
- Surgery to remove a tumor or part of a tumor.
- Surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
- Radiation therapy to relieve pain or reduce the volume of the tumor.
- Chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells or prevent them from growing.
A multidisciplinary team of oncologic spine surgeon, radiation oncologist and medical oncologist decides the treatment plan of spine tumors, whether in the vertebra or spinal cord itself, in the majority of cases.
Many people with cancer join support groups where they can hear about the experiences of others with similar diseases. Some people who undergo surgery to remove a spinal tumor experience numbness or tingling during their recovery. This should fade with time. If you experience pain after your surgery, you can take a pain-relieving medication.
Most spinal tumors are benign. For many benign tumors, the only aftercare necessary is physical or occupational therapy. You may benefit from regular imaging tests to keep an eye on any tumor growth.