Spine Tumor

What Is It?

A spine tumor is a tumor that grows in the spinal column. It can be a primary spinal tumor, originating in the spine, or a secondary or metastatic spinal tumor, spreading to the spine from another location in the body.

Spinal tumors can grow within the nervous system itself, within the spinal cord, or can grow elsewhere in the spine in the soft tissues or bone.

Common primary tumors of the spine include meningiomas, ependymomas, schwannomas, and gliomas.

Secondary tumors which can involve the spinal column include many forms of metastatic cancers such as lung and breast cancer, among others.

A spine tumor is often classified as intramedullary or intra-axial if it occurs within the spinal cord itself. If it is outside of the spinal cord but still within the outer covering of the spinal cord, the dura, it is termed intradural, extramedullary. Finally, if it is outside of the dura, in the soft tissues or bone of the spinal column, it is extradural.

Although this is not an exhaustive list that includes very rare cases, below are some possible spine tumors by general location:

Intramedullary/Intra-Axial: Inside the spinal cord itself.

  • Glioma (astrocytoma, oligodendroglioma, etc.)
  • Hemangioblastoma
  • Ependymoma

Intradural, Extramedullary: Inside the dural covering of the spinal canal but originating outside the spinal cord.

  • Meningioma
  • Schwannoma
  • Neurofibromas
  • Arachnoid cyst (not truly a tumor but can be mass-like)

Extradural: In the soft tissue and/or bone of the spine but outside of the dura and spinal canal.

  • Metastatic tumors (lung, breast, etc.)
  • Schwannoma
  • Sarcoma
  • Plasmacytoma
  • Bone tumors of the spine (osteosarcoma, osteochondroma, chondrosarcoma, etc.)
  • Chordoma (most common in the sacrum and base of the skull)

What Types of Symptoms Are Typical?

The presenting symptoms of a spine tumor vary considerably depending on the type of tumor and its location. Generally, if the tumor causes compression or destruction of a part of the spinal cord or nerve roots it can lead to related neurological deficits. If the tumor involves the soft tissues and/or bone of the spine, neck or back pain can be common.

Tumors which primarily affect nerves entering and exiting the spinal cord present with neurological symptoms in the distribution of that nerve, which can include sensory changes and muscle weakness or paralysis.

Tumors which involve the spinal cord itself can cause dysfunction of nervous function at that level and below. For example, a large tumor in the cervical spine (neck) can cause sensory and/or motor changes in the arms as well as the legs and bowel and bladder dysfunction. These dysfunctional areas may be subtle or can be as severe as to cause complete paraplegia or quadriplegia.

Again, the specific symptoms in a given patient varies considerably depending on many factors related to the tumor and its location.

How Is The Diagnosis Typically Made?

If a patient presents with symptoms which may be suggestive of a spinal tumor or other nervous system disease they generally undergo a thorough neurological evaluation followed by some form of diagnostic testing. Generally, after the neurological exam, a CT scan and/or MRI scan of the spine is ordered. These can help to identify and in some cases diagnose the tumor.

If the imaging study cannot definitively diagnose the tumor, tumor tissue may be required for a pathologist to make a tissue diagnosis, to distinguish the tumor from other types which can appear similar. This generally requires some form of surgical biopsy or resection of the tumor.

What Are Some Common Treatments?

Each case and each type of spine tumor is different and therefore generalizations about treatment cannot be made. However, many patients with a spine tumor will require some form of surgical intervention to either biopsy or remove the tumor as much as possible. This depends completely on the specifics of each case and what type of tumor the patient has.

Some patients will require adjuvant chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments. Patients who have a metastatic tumor from another source may require other treatments for their primary disease.

Each patient should consult their treating physicians about the best course of action in their particular situation.

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Important Note: This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.

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