A spinal tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue caused by an overgrowth of cells, which is located within or around the spinal cord or spinal column. It can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Some tumors can originate in the spine or spinal cord, while others can occur as a result of cancer spread from another area of the body to the spinal area. The former is referred to as a primary tumor while the latter is a secondary or metastatic tumor. Spinal tumors are classified according to their location.
What Causes Spinal Tumors?
Most spinal tumors are metastatic (spreading of cancer from other areas of the body). The cause of spinal tumors is not certain, but some studies suggest they can be linked to genetics or exposure to toxins.
What Are the Types of Spinal Tumors?
Aside from being primary or secondary, spinal tumors are defined according to their location in the spine. There are three major types:
- Extradural: Also known as epidural tumors are found in the spinal column and can affect the vertebrae, but usually don’t affect the spinal cord. They typically form in what’s known as the epidural space, which is outside the outer membrane or dura that protects the spinal cord. These tumors are commonly metastatic, meaning they’ve spread from cancer in another area of the body.
- Intradural-extramedullary: These tumors are located inside the dura, but outside of the spinal cord. Usually, these tumors are benign and grow slowly.
- Intramedullary: These tumors form inside the spinal cord, and usually form in the cervical spine (neck). They’re typically benign.
What Are the Symptoms of a Spinal Tumor?
Depending on where exactly the tumor is located and if it’s cancerous or not, the symptoms will vary. Sometimes no symptoms are present, but when they do appear, they most typically are associated with pain such as:
- Pain at the site of the tumor, such as the neck, middle or lower back
- Feeling of discomfort deep within the back as opposed to on the surface or skin
- Increased pain at night or when waking up
- Sensitivity to touch or compression
- Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
- Change in bowel or bladder habits
How Are Spinal Tumors Diagnosed?
After reviewing your medical history and performing a physical exam, your doctor will need to order some additional tests to make an accurate diagnosis. If a spinal tumor is suspected, the most common diagnostic test is a spinal MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test. Additional tests may be used to ascertain more detailed information about the tumor. Some of these may include:
- CT scan (computed tomography)
- Bone scan
- Myelography (a type of imaging test that uses contrast dye)
What Are the Treatments for Spinal Tumors?
Treatment of spinal tumors depends on a variety of factors such as the tumor location, type, growth rate, and multiple other aspects. Sometimes, if a tumor is benign and not causing any symptoms, no treatment is necessary. However, if the tumor is cancerous or causing symptoms, treatment will be needed. According to your specific case, treatment options may include:
- Surgery (there are different types of surgery depending on the type and location of the tumor)
- Chemotherapy or radiation therapy (including targeted proton therapy)
- Steroid medications to treat pain and swelling