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    Spinal tumor

    Tumor - spinal cord

    A spinal tumor is a growth of cells (mass) in or surrounding the spinal cord.


    Any type of tumor may occur in the spine, including:

    • Leukemia
    • Lymphoma
    • Myeloma

    A small number of spinal tumors occur in the nerves of the spinal cord itself. Most often these are ependymomas and other gliomas.

    Tumors that start in spinal tissue are called primary spinal tumors. Tumors that spread to the spine from some other place (metastasis) are called secondary spinal tumors. Tumors may spread to the spine from the breast, prostate, lung, and other areas.

    The cause of primary spinal tumors is unknown. Some primary spinal tumors occur with genetic defects.

    Spinal tumors can occur:

    • Inside the spinalcord (intramedullary)
    • In the membranes (meninges) covering the spinal cord (extramedullary - intradural)
    • Between the meninges and bones of the spine (extradural)

    Or, tumors may extend from other locations. Most spinal tumors are extradural.

    As it grows, the tumor can affect the:

    • Blood vessels
    • Bones of the spine
    • Meninges
    • Nerve roots
    • Spinal cord cells

    The tumor may press on the spinal cord or nerve roots, causing damage. With time, the damage may become permanent.


    The symptoms depend on the location, type of tumor, and your general health. Tumors that have spread to the spine from another site (metastatic tumors) often progress quickly. Primary tumors often progress slowly over weeks to years.

    Tumors in the spinal cord usually cause symptoms, sometimes over large portions of the body. Tumors outside the spinal cord may grow for a long time before causing nerve damage.

    Symptoms may include:

    • Abnormal sensations or loss of sensation:
      • Especially in the legs (may be in the knee or ankle, with or without shooting pain down the leg)
      • Cold sensation of the legs, cool fingers or hands, or coolness of other areas
    • Back pain:
      • Gets worse over time
      • In any area -- middle or low back are most common
      • Is usually severe and not relieved by pain medication
      • Is worse when lying down
      • Is worse with strain, cough, sneeze
      • May extend to the hip, leg, or feet (or arms), or all extremities
    • Fecal incontinence
    • Inability to keep from leaking urine (urinary incontinence)
    • Muscle contractions, twitches, or spasms (fasciculations)
    • Muscle function loss
    • Muscle weakness (decreased muscle strength not due to exercise):
      • Causes falls
      • Especially in the legs
      • Makes walking difficult
      • May get worse (progressive)

    Exams and Tests

    A neurological examination may help pinpoint the location of the tumor. The health care provider may also find the following during an exam:

    • Abnormal reflexes
    • Increased muscle tone
    • Loss of pain and temperature sensation
    • Muscle weakness
    • Tenderness in the spine

    These tests may confirm spinal tumor:

    • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) examination
    • Cytology (cell studies) of CSF
    • Myelogram
    • Spinal CT
    • Spine MRI
    • Spine x-ray


    The goal of treatment is to reduce or prevent nerve damage from pressure on (compression of) the spinal cord.

    Treatment should be given quickly. The more quickly symptoms develop, the sooner treatment is needed to prevent permanent injury. Any new or unexplained back pain in a patient with cancer should be thoroughly investigated.

    Treatments include:

    • Corticosteroids (dexamethasone) may be given to reduce inflammation and swelling around the spinal cord.
    • Surgery may be needed to relieve compression on the spinal cord. Some tumors can be completely removed. In other cases, part of the tumor may be removed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
    • Radiation therapy may be used with, or instead of, surgery.
    • Chemotherapy has not been proven effective against most spinal tumors, but it may be recommended in some cases.
    • Physical therapy may be needed to improve muscle strength and the ability to function independently.

    Support Groups

    You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    The outcome varies depending on the tumor. Early diagnosis and treatment usually leads to a better outcome.

    Nerve damage often continues, even after surgery. Although some amount of permanent disability is likely, treatment may delay major disability and death.

    Possible Complications

    • Incontinence
    • Life-threatening spinal cord compression
    • Loss of sensation
    • Paralysis
    • Permanent damage to nerves, disability from nerve damage

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call your health care provider if you have a history of cancer and develop severe back pain that is sudden or gets worse.

    Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you develop new symptoms, or your symptoms get worse during the treatment of a spinal tumor.


    DeAngelis LM. Tumors of the central nervous system and intracranial hypertension and hypotension. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 195.


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      A Closer Look

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          Self Care

            Tests for Spinal tumor

            Review Date: 9/9/2012

            Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

            The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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