While the specific cause of most spinal tumors is not known, experts believe that defective genes may play a role. It’s not clear whether the defective genes are caused by environmental factors, inherited or occur spontaneously. Some spinal tumors are linked to known inherited syndromes, such as von Hippel-Lindau disease and neurofibromatosis. The parts of the spine most likely to be affected by a spinal tumor are vertebrae and the spinal cord.
Spinal tumors at a glance:
- A spinal tumor is a mass or growth of cells in or surrounding the spinal cord and spine.
- Various types of tumors may occur in the spine.
- Spinal tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign).
- Spinal tumors can affect nerves in the area of the tumor, cause pain, neurological problems and sometimes even paralysis.
- Spinal tumors can be life-threatening or cause permanent disability even if they are not cancerous.
- Spinal tumors are often treated through a combination of back surgery, medications, chemotherapy and/or radiation. Be sure to talk to your pharmacist before purchasing anti-inflammatories as these medications may be contraindicated as they may interact with other medications and medical conditions.
Types of Spinal Tumors
There are several types of spinal tumors, which are classified according to the location in the spine.
- Intradural-extramedullary tumors: These tumors develop in the nerve roots that extend out from the spinal cord or in the spinal cord’s arachnoid membrane and can be cancerous or non-cancerous.
- Extradural (vertebral) tumors: Some tumors affecting the vertebrae have spread from another site in the body (ie. breast, lung, kidney, or prostate). Although the primary cancer is usually diagnosed before the back problems develop, back pain can be the first symptom in those with metastatic spinal tumors. Vertebral tumors can arise from bone cells within the spine.
- Intramedullary tumors: Intramedullary tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous, and begin in the supporting cells within the spinal cord.
Symptoms of Spinal Tumors
Signs and symptoms of spine tumors vary depending on the location and type, especially as the tumor develops and affects the nerve roots, blood vessels, bones or spinal cord.
Back pain is a common symptom of spinal tumors, and pain may spread to the hips, legs or feet. The pain may become more severe over time. Keep in mind that back pain has many different causes. Most back pain is not a result of spinal tumors.
See your doctor if your back pain is persistent and growing progressively worse, if the pain is worse at night, or if it is not activity related. You should seek medical attention if you have a history of cancer and develop back pain. Seek immediate help if you experience progressive muscle weakness or numbness in your legs or have changes in bladder or bowel function.
Treatment of Spinal Tumors
Treatment is coordinated through your team of physicians, including your oncologist, your primary care doctor, and surgeon.
Ideally, the goal of spinal tumor treatment is to eliminate the tumor completely, but this is not always possible due to the risk of permanent damage to the surrounding nerves and organ structures. Treatment will depend on the type of tumor, the patient’s health and age and whether or not the tumor has spread from somewhere else in the body.
Spinal tumor treatment options include:
- Monitoring: If a small tumor is noncancerous and isn’t growing or pressing on surrounding tissues, your doctor may decide no other treatment is needed except to monitor it closely through periodic scans.
- Surgery: If the tumor can be removed with minimal risk of nerve damage, your doctor may decide to remove it through surgery. New technology and techniques allow surgeons to remove tumors that were once thought inaccessible. Your medical team may use sound waves to break up the tumor and remove the fragments. Not all tumors can be removed completely.
- Radiation therapy: If a tumor cannot be removed completely, surgery may be followed by radiation therapy. Radiation is often used for metastatic tumors, or when surgery cannot be performed.
- Chemotherapy: This is a standard treatment for many cancers, and uses medication to destroy the cancerous cells.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS): This is a new method of radiation therapy that focuses radiation beams on the tumor with pinpoint accuracy.
- Medications: Your physician may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce the swelling following surgery or during radiation therapy.