What is a spinal tumor?

A spinal tumor occurs when a mass grows in the spinal canal or in the bones of the spine. Many tumors in the spine are metastatic, meaning they have spread from another part of the body. They typically cause severe pain because of the expanding or weakening bone in the spine, which could lead to a spinal compression fracture or spinal instability.

If left untreated, spinal tumors can lead to loss of movement and permanent nerve damage.

Types of spinal tumors

Some common spinal tumors include:

Vertebral column tumors

Vertebral column tumors can be divided into primary tumors or metastatic tumors. A primary tumor, such as osteosarcoma, is a rare spinal tumor that grows in the bone or discs of the spine. Metastatic tumors are a more common type of spinal tumor that spreads from other parts of the body. Metastatic spinal tumors in women typically spread from the breast or lung, while metastatic spinal tumors in men typically spread from the prostate or lung.

Intradural-extramedullary tumors

Intradural-extramedullary tumors include meningiomas or nerve sheath tumors. These tumors grow within the spinal canal, are typically benign and grow slowly. Meningiomas grow in the membranes around the spinal cord, while nerve sheath tumors grow from the nerve roots on the spinal cord.

Intramedullary tumors

Intramedullary tumors are spinal tumors that typically grow inside the spinal cord or glial cells in the neck and are likely benign. Types of intramedullary tumors are astrocytomas or ependymomas.

Causes of a spinal tumor

The cause of spinal tumors is generally unknown, when not resulting from another disease or spreading from another part of the body.

Research has linked spinal tumors to the following factors:

  • Genetics — defective genes that are passed down from your parents may lead to the growth of spinal tumors
  • Environment — some spinal tumors have been linked to certain chemicals
  • Inherited syndromes — diseases, such as neurofibromatosis 2 and von Hippel-Lindau disease, have been linked to the formation of spinal tumors

Risk factors for a spinal tumor

There are a few factors that can raise your risk of developing a spinal tumor including:

  • Radiation exposure — exposure to radiation is the most common risk factor for spinal tumors. Patients who have had radiation therapy for another condition are at risk of developing a spinal tumor.
  • Genetics — some people who have a family history of conditions such as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), tuberous sclerosis, Von Hippel-Lindau disease or Li-Fraumeni syndrome are at higher risk of developing a spinal tumor

Symptoms of a spinal tumor

Symptoms of a spinal tumor vary based on the stage of growth you. As the tumor grows, symptoms intensify.

The most common symptoms of spinal tumors include:

  • Back or neck pain
  • Weakness in the arms or legs
  • Change in bowel habits 
  • Pain that is more severe when the spine is compressed or is not relieved with rest
  • Pain in conjunction with loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, nausea, vomiting, fever or chills

Diagnosis for a spinal tumor

Spinal tumor symptoms can mimic other spinal conditions, so it is important to be evaluated by a spine specialist if you suspect you have a spinal tumor. During a physical exam, your doctor will take a full medical history (including a full family medical history) as well as perform a physical and neurological exam.

To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may order diagnostic imaging tests such as:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan — an MRI can show detailed images of the spine and surrounding tissues, most commonly first-line test used for diagnosing spinal tumors.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan — rarely, your doctor may order a CT scan to confirm a spinal tumor diagnosis, by taking detailed, cross-sectional images of the spinal cord to determine if you have a growth on the spine.
  • Biopsy — during a biopsy, your doctor will take a sample of the tissue growth to determine what type of spinal tumor you have. 

Treatment for a spinal tumor

Your physician will work in collaboration with surgeons and other specialists to develop a treatment plan that is individualized for your case.

If your spinal tumor is not causing symptoms and is not cancerous, you may not need immediate treatment. Your doctor will recommend frequent monitoring appointments where he or she will take diagnostic imaging tests to determine if your tumor is growing or causing issues. 

If your tumor can be removed without damaging surrounding tissues or nerves, your doctor may decide to remove it right away and a team will determine which spine surgery is most appropriate for your case.

Surgical treatments for spine tumors include:

  • Decompression — removing the entire tumor on the spine
  • Embolization — cut off blood flow to the tumor to shrink it
  • Kyphoplasty — stabilize fractured vertebra caused by spinal tumors to relieve pain
  • Vertebroplasty with radiofrequency ablation — removes the tumor and stabilizes the vertebrae to relieve pain
  • Spinal fusion (stabilization) — uses hardware to fuse the spine together to stabilize

If your doctor can’t remove the entire tumor during surgery, he or she may recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy to try to eliminate the remaining cancerous tissue. CyberKnife is a type of radiation therapy used to remove spinal tumors.

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