Neurological Spine Disorders

Spinal Cord Tumors

What are spinal cord tumors?

A tumor forms when an abnormal cell proliferates to form a mass of abnormal cells. Spinal cord tumors are tumors that form on the spinal cord or in the area around it.

A spinal cord tumor may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Even if benign, a tumor may cause symptoms including pain, weakness, numbness or tingling because it pushes on the spinal cord or nerves.

A spinal cord tumor may be called “primary,” which means the cancer started in the spinal cord, or “secondary,” which means the cancer started somewhere else in body and spread to the spinal cord. Most of the time, spinal cord tumors are secondary tumors. A spinal cord tumor is often a cancer of the breast, thyroid, lung, prostate, or another cancer that has extended throughout the body to reach the spine.

Spinal cord tumors are sometimes caused by a genetic disorder, like neurofibromatosis. Some people get spinal cord tumors because they were exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause cancer or have been exposed to radiation.

How common are spinal cord tumors?

Spinal cord tumors are relatively uncommon. It's much more common to develop a brain tumor than a tumor on the spinal cord. A spinal cord tumor may form inside the spinal cord itself or around the bones that make up the spine. Spinal cord tumors cause problems with the nerves, blood vessels, and bones, and can prevent sufficient blood flow throughout the body as it grows.

Some spinal cord tumors can be successfully treated. The earlier you tell your doctor about your symptoms, get a diagnosis, and start treatment, the better your outcome. But spinal cord tumors often cause permanent damage to the nerves and result in disability.

What are the types of spinal cord tumors?

Spinal cord tumors come in many different types, including:

What are the symptoms caused by spinal cord tumors?

Spinal cord tumors can cause many different symptoms:

Spinal cord tumors often cause back pain, including:

How are spinal cord tumors diagnosed?

A doctor will usually perform a neurologic exam to diagnose a spinal cord tumor. The exam will look for these signs:

These tests help your doctor see a spinal cord tumor and find out more information about it:

How are spinal cord tumors treated?

Treatment for a spinal cord tumor is different for everyone and depends on the type of tumor, its location, and your overall health. These are treatment options:

How can spinal cord tumors be prevented?

Since it's not understood why most primary spinal cord tumors develop, experts don't know how to prevent them.

How can I manage my symptoms during treatment?

Working with your doctor can help you to ease your symptoms so that you feel more comfortable before and during treatment.

After your treatment, you may need physical therapy to strengthen muscles and help them work properly again.

During the course of your treatment, always notify your doctor or seek emergency medical assistance if your symptoms suddenly become more severe or change in some way.

Key points to remember

If you are currently undergoing treatment for any type of cancer and develop back pain, you should let your doctor know right away. It's also a good idea to contact your doctor about any back pain that worsens or doesn't go away with time.

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