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Spinal Cord Tumor Overview

What is a spinal cord tumor?

A tumor forms when an abnormal cell grows to form a mass or lump of abnormal cells. Spinal cord tumors are tumors that form in the spinal cord or the area around it. The spinal cord is a long bundle of nerves that goes from your brain to your lower back. It's covered by a thin layer of tissue. Your spinal cord runs through the bones of your back (vertebrae), which protect it.

A spinal cord tumor may be cancer (malignant) or non-cancer (benign). Even a benign tumor can cause problems, like pain and discomfort, because it pushes on the spinal cord or nerves.

A malignant spinal cord tumor may be called a primary tumor. This means the cancer started in cells of the spinal cord. Or a spinal cord tumor may be secondary. This means the cancer started somewhere else in the body and spread to the spinal cord. Most spinal cord tumors are secondary tumors. They're caused when cells from lung, breast, prostate, or another cancer spread through the blood or lymph system and reach the spine. Then, over time, they grow and make a tumor there.

Spinal cord tumors are rare. Brain tumors are much more common. A spinal cord tumor may form inside the spinal cord itself. Or it may form around the bones that make up the spine. Spinal cord tumors can cause problems with the nearby nerves, blood vessels, and bones.

Types of spinal cord tumors

Spinal cord tumors affect many different parts of the spine, and there are many different types, including:

  • Medulloblastoma. This tumor starts in brain cells and tends to quickly spread to the spine. It's most common in children.

  • Glioma (ependymoma, astrocytoma, or ganglioglioma). This is a tumor that starts in cells called glial cells.

  • Chordoma. This tumor starts in the bones of the spine and can push against the spinal cord.

  • Schwannoma. This starts inside the cells that cover and protect nerves.

  • Meningioma. This tumor starts in the tissues around the spinal cord (meninges).

  • Metastatic (secondary) tumor. This is cancer that started in another part of the body and has spread to the spinal cord.

  • Lymphoma. This is a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. It's rare, but it can start in lymphocytes in the central nervous system (CNS). This is called a primary CNS lymphoma.

  • Multiple myeloma. This is a cancer that starts in the bone marrow. It can form in the marrow of the bones of the spine and damage the spinal cord.

What causes a spinal cord tumor?

Researchers don’t know what causes these tumors. Healthcare providers also do not have a clear idea about the risk factors for these tumors.

A rare genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis has been linked to a higher risk of spinal cord tumors as well as other kinds of tumors.

What are the symptoms of a spinal cord tumor?

Spinal cord tumors can cause many different symptoms depending on where they are in the spine and how big they are. Symptoms can include:

  • Inability to control the bowels or bladder

  • Weak muscles that you can't seem to control, so that you fall or have trouble walking

  • Muscle spasms

  • Numbness in the legs, arms, or chest

  • Feeling cold in the hands, fingers, or legs

  • Decreased ability to feel pain, heat, or cold in your hands or feet

Spinal cord tumors often cause mid to lower back pain that may:

  • Feel worse when you strain in any way, sneeze, or cough

  • Increase when you lie down

  • Be worse with activity

  • Doesn't get better with pain medicine or other treatments

  • Gets worse as time passes

  • Spread into your arms, feet, legs, or hips

If you are getting cancer treatment and develop back pain, you should let your doctor know right away. This could be a sign that the cancer has spread to your spine. It's also a good idea to contact your doctor about any back pain that gets worse or doesn't go away with time.

Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. Still, it's important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have a spinal cord tumor.

How is a spinal cord tumor diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. A physical exam and a neurological exam will be done. The exam will look for:

  • Pain in your spine

  • Your ability to feel pain, heat, or cold

  • Abnormal reflexes

  • Muscle weakness

These tests can help your healthcare provider see a spinal cord tumor and learn more about it:

  • Imaging tests, like an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI to look at your spine

  • Blood tests to check hormone levels and your blood cell counts

  • Biopsy. This is when a tiny piece of the tumor is taken out and sent to a lab for testing. This can show if it's cancer and, if so, if it's a primary or secondary tumor.

  • Lumbar puncture or spinal tap. This is done to take out and test the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the cells in the fluid for signs of cancer.

How is a spinal cord tumor treated?

Treatment for a spinal cord tumor is different for everyone. It depends on the type of tumor, where it is, how fast it's growing, the problems it's causing, and your overall health. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the tumor. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be. Other things to think about are if the cancer can be removed with surgery, how your body will look and work after treatment, and your overall health.

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery to remove all or part of the tumor

  • Radiation therapy, which is sometimes used along with surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Steroids to decrease swelling

Some types of spinal tumors are treated with radiation of the whole spine. This is called craniospinal radiation. It can lead to fewer red blood cells (anemia) and other side effects. If you're going to get radiation to your lower back (lumbar spine), your ability to have children (fertility) may be affected. Talk with your healthcare provider about all your treatment options. Be sure you know what to expect.

What are treatment side effects?

Cancer treatment, like chemotherapy and radiation, can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects like hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting. Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects linked with your treatment. There are often ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help prevent or control many treatment side effects.

Coping with a spinal cord tumor

Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with a spinal cord tumor. Getting treatment can be hard on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effect of the tumor and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a support group.

Treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with as many protein foods as possible.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

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

To learn more

Joining a support group for people with cancer or spinal cord problems can be helpful when you're battling a spinal cord tumor.

To find out more information about spinal cord tumors, you may want to contact:

Key points about spinal cord tumors

  • Spinal cord tumors are tumors that form in the spinal cord or in the area around it.

  • A spinal cord tumor may be cancer (malignant) or noncancer (benign). A benign tumor can often cause pain and discomfort because it pushes on the spinal cord or nerves.

  • These tumors may cause back pain. Other symptoms can include inability to control the bowels or bladder, weak muscles that you can't seem to control, and an abnormal feeling in the legs.

  • Treatment options include surgery to remove all or part of the tumor, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and corticosteroid medicines.

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

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Luc Jasmin MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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