Definition

What is a spinal tumor?

A spinal tumor is a growth that develops within your spinal canal or within the bones of your spine. It may be cancerous or noncancerous.

Tumors that affect the bones of the spine (vertebrae) are known as vertebral tumors.

Tumors that begin within the spinal cord itself are called spinal cord tumors. There are two main types of tumors that may affect the spinal cord:

  • Intramedullary tumors begin in the cells within the spinal cord itself, such as astrocytomas or ependymomas.
  • Extramedullary tumors develop within the supporting network of cells around the spinal cord. Although they don’t begin within the spinal cord itself, these types of tumors may affect spinal cord function by causing spinal cord compression and other problems. Examples of extramedullary tumors that can affect the spinal cord include schwannomas, meningiomas and neurofibromas.

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.

How common is a spinal tumor?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of a spinal tumor?

Tumors within the spinal cord generally cause detectable symptoms, while spinal tumors outside of the cord may develop for some time before symptoms emerge. Common symptoms include:

  • Back pain
  • Cold sensation in the legs, feet or hands
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat and cold
  • Loss of sensation, particularly in the legs
  • Muscle weakness and difficulty walking
  • Muscle contractions or spasms

Back pain is a common early symptom of both noncancerous and cancerous spinal tumors. Pain may also spread beyond your back to your hips, legs, feet or arms and may become more severe over time in spite of treatment.

Spinal tumors progress at different rates. In general, cancerous spinal tumors grow more quickly, and noncancerous spinal tumors tend to develop very slowly.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

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

  • It’s persistent and progressive
  • It’s not activity related
  • It gets worse at night
  • You have a history of cancer and develop new back pain

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience:

  • Progressive muscle weakness or numbness in your legs or arms
  • Changes in bowel or bladder function

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes a spinal tumor?

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, occur spontaneously or are 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.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for a spinal tumor?

Spinal cord tumors are more common in people who have:

  • Neurofibromatosis 2. In this hereditary disorder, noncancerous tumors develop on or near the nerves related to hearing, which may lead to progressive hearing loss in one or both ears. Some people with neurofibromatosis 2 also develop spinal canal tumors, frequently multiple and of several different types.
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease. This rare, multisystem disorder is associated with noncancerous blood vessel tumors (hemangioblastomas) in the brain, retina and spinal cord and with other types of tumors in the kidneys or adrenal glands.
  • A prior history of cancer. Any type of cancer can travel to the spine, but the cancers that may be more likely to affect the spine include breast, lung, prostate and multiple myeloma.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is a spinal tumor diagnosed?

The first test to diagnose brain and spinal column tumors is a neurological examination. Special imaging techniques such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are also performed.

Laboratory tests include the electroencephalogram (EEG) and the spinal tap. A biopsy, a surgical procedure in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, helps doctors diagnose the type of tumor.

How is a spinal tumor treated?

Surgery

While surgery is increasingly recommended for benign and malignant primary spinal cord tumors, the role of surgery in spinal metastasis, or cancer that has spread to the spine, is controversial. Recent developments in imaging as well as new surgical tools and techniques, such as ultrasonic aspirators and lasers, have significantly expanded the role of surgery as an intervention.

For metastatic tumors with spinal cord compression, some neurosurgeons may perform surgery in selected patients to relieve pressure and pain, reconstruct or stabilize the spine, preserve mobility and bowel and bladder function, and to maximize quality of life. Some doctors may only recommend surgery for patients with a single metastatic tumor and no evidence of cancer growing at another site.

Radiation therapy

Most patients with primary spinal cord tumors will not require radiation therapy. Radiation, however, is used to treat spinal cord compression due to metastatic cancer or cancer that has spread from other locations. Other targets of radiation include some primary cancers of the spine and more rarely, benign or low-grade spinal cord tumors that cannot be completely removed surgically.

The spinal cord is even more sensitive to the effects of radiation than the brain. Our radiation oncologists work carefully to minimize the risk of radiation-induced damage to normal spinal tissue since it can be progressive and irreversible. The thoracic spinal cord segments, or those located near the chest where half of all spinal tumors occur, are the most sensitive to the effects of radiation.

Radiosurgery with an advanced device called the CyberKnife may be an option for some patients. The CyberKnife is a painless, non-invasive threatment that delivers high doses of precisely targeted radiation to destroy tumors or lesions. Radiosurgery minimizes radiation exposure to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.

The CyberKnife uses a robotic arm to deliver highly focused beams of radiation. The flexibility of the robotic arm makes it possible to treat areas of the body, such as the spine and spinal cord, that cannot be treated by other radiosurgery techniques.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, similar to that used for brain tumors, may be recommended in adults for spinal gliomas that progress after surgery and radiation.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may use just one drug or a combination, usually giving the drugs by mouth or by injection into a blood vessel or muscle. Intrathecal chemotherapy involves injecting the drugs into the cerebrospinal fluid.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles: a treatment period followed by a recovery period, then another treatment period, and so on. Patients often do not need to stay in the hospital for treatment. Most drugs can be given in the doctor’s office or the outpatient clinic. However, depending on the drugs used, the way they are given and the patient’s general health, a short hospital stay may be necessary.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage a spinal tumor?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with a spinal tumor:

Alternative medicine

Although there aren’t any alternative medicines that have been proved to cure cancer, some alternative or complementary 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 may 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:

  • Find out all you can about your specific spinal tumor. Write down your questions and bring them to your appointments. As your doctor answers your questions, take notes or ask a friend or family member to come along to take notes.
    The more you and your family know and understand about your care, the more confident you’ll feel when it comes time to make treatment decisions.
  • Get support. Find someone you can share your feelings and concerns with. You may have a close friend or family member who is a good listener. Or speak with a clergy member or counselor.
    Other people with spinal tumors may be able to offer unique insight. Ask your doctor about support groups in your area. Online discussion boards, such as those offered by the Spinal Cord Tumor Association, are another option.
  • Take care of yourself. Choose a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains whenever possible. Check with your doctor to see when you can start exercising again. Get enough sleep so that you feel rested.
    Reduce stress in your life by taking time for relaxing activities, such as listening to music or writing in a journal.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: October 26, 2017 | Last Modified: October 26, 2017

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