A spinal tumor is an abnormal growth in the spine. The tumor may occur in the bones of the spine, nerve tissue, or soft tissue around the spine.
Tumors in the spine can press on nerves and blood supply causing a variety of symptoms. The tumors may be:
- Benign—noncancerous tumor that does not invade nearby tissue
- Malignant—cancer that invades nearby tissue, usually spread of cancer from other areas of the body
The most common cause of spinal tumor is the spread of cancer from other areas of the body. Any cancer in the body can spread to the spine, but the cancers most often associated include:
The cause of other spinal tumors is not always clear. It is probably due to a combination of genetics and environmental issues.
Factors that may increase your chance of spinal cancer include:
- Compromised immune system
- History of cancer
Small tumors may not cause any symptoms. Larger tumors may begin to press on or affect nearby nerves or blood vessels. The most common symptom is back pain that was not caused by a specific injury or event. The pain may get worse overtime and spread to the hips, legs or arms.
Other symptoms will depend on the area of the tumor and may include:
- Decreased ability to sense cold, heat or pain in legs arms or chest
- Loss of muscle strength in legs, arms or chest
- Difficulty using arms and legs for basic tasks like walking
- Loss of bladder and bowel function
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam may be done. Your doctor may also do some neurologic tests to look for the source of your back problems.
Images of the spine will be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Images may be taken with:
Once the tumor is confirmed, a biopsy may be done. A small piece of the tumor will be removed and tested to determine if it is cancer.
The biopsy and further image testing will help your doctor learn more about the tumor. Staging helps describe certain characteristics of the cancer. It may indicate the size of the tumor and whether it has spread. Staging will help your doctor develop the most effective treatment plan.
Treatment will depend on the type of tumor and its location. Options may include:
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and catheter (IV or port). The drugs travel through the bloodstream to kill cancer cells but some healthy cells are killed as well.
It may be used as treatment alone or with other treatments such as surgery.
Radiation therapy involves the use of radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink the tumor. It may be able to reduce the size of the tumor. This may be a cure or will reduce the size of the tumor to decrease symptoms. Radiation may also be used to shrink the tumor before surgery.
There are multiple forms of radiation depending on the location of the tumor and goals of treatment. The goal is to deliver the right amount of radiation to the tumor without affecting too many of the nearby healthy cells.
Surgery is not an option for all. The location and size of the tumor and the progression of the tumor will all be considered before surgery. Surgery may be done as:
- Cure for cancer if the cancer started in spine
- Part of cancer treatment that includes chemotherapy or radiation
- Treatment to try to relieve pain or disability
- Treatment for tumors that do not respond to chemotherapy or radiation
Benign tumors that are not causing symptoms, or have mild symptoms, may not need treatment. Your doctor will monitor the tumor to look for any changes.
There are current guidelines to prevent spinal tumors.
Spinal tumors. American Association of Neurological Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Spinal%20Tumors.aspx. Updated February 2012. Accessed June 4, 2013.
Spinal cord tumor. University of California San Francisco Medical Center website. Available at: http://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/spinal_cord_tumor/. Accessed June 4, 2013.
Spinal tumors. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 20, 2013. Accessed June 4, 2013.
Spinal tumors. University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center website. Available at: http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/cancer-information/cancer-types/spinal-tumors/index.html. Accessed June 4, 2013.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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