Depending on the location and type of spinal tumor, different signs and symptoms can develop, especially as a tumor grows and affects your spinal cord, surrounding nerves or blood vessels. Signs and symptoms of tumors affecting the spinal cord may include:
- Back pain, sometimes radiating to other parts of your body
- Loss of sensation, especially in your arms or legs
- Difficulty walking, sometimes leading to falls
- Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat and cold
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Muscle weakness that may occur in varying degrees and in different parts of your body, depending on which nerves or part of the spinal cord is compressed
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.
When to see a 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
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.
Types of spinal cord tumors
Spinal cord tumors are classified according to their location in the spine.
Your spinal cord is a long column of nerve fibers that carries messages to and from your brain. Wrapped around the entire spinal cord are three protective membranes known as meninges. The tough outer later is the dura mater, the middle layer is the arachnoid membrane and the innermost later is the pia mater.
Spinal cord tumors may be classified as intradural or extradural depending on where they occur relative to these protective membranes of the spinal cord.
Intradural tumors occur within the dura mater and are further divided into two subcategories:
- Extramedullary tumors. These tumors develop outside the spinal cord, such as in the surrounding dura mater (meningiomas) or in the nerve roots that extend out from the spinal cord (schwannomas and neurofibromas). These tumors are noncancerous in most cases.
- Intramedullary tumors. These tumors begin in the supporting cells within the spinal cord. Most are either astrocytomas or ependymomas. In rare cases, intramedullary tumors from other parts of the body can spread through the bloodstream to the spinal cord itself.
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.
Both noncancerous and cancerous spinal tumors can compress the spinal cord and nerves, leading to a loss of movement or sensation at and below the level of the tumor and sometimes to changes in bowel and bladder function. Nerve damage may be permanent.
However, if a spinal tumor is caught early and treated aggressively, it may be possible to prevent further loss of function and, with aggressive rehabilitation, regain nerve function. Depending on its location, a tumor that compresses the spinal cord itself may be life-threatening.