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.
Spinal tumors or growths of any kind can lead to pain, neurological problems and sometimes paralysis. Whether cancerous or not, a spinal tumor can be life-threatening and cause permanent disability.
Treatment for a spinal tumor may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other medications.
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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.
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.