Spinal Tumors

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Spinal tumors account for a small percentage of all tumors of the central nervous system. They appear in three forms.

Primary spinal tumors

These tumors, which are quite rare, occur in the vertebral column and grow either from the bone or disc elements of the spine. They typically occur in younger adults, and they usually grow slowly. Osteogenic sarcoma (osteosarcoma) is the most common malignant bone tumor.

Metastatic spinal tumors

Most spinal tumors have metastasized (spread) from cancer in another area of the body.

Intradural-extramedullary tumors

Intradural-extramedullary tumors grow within the spinal canal, under the membrane that covers the spinal cord but outside of the nerves. These tumors usually are benign and slow growing.

What are the symptoms of spinal tumors?

  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Neurological problems (such as weakness or numbness of the arms or legs or a change in normal bowel or bladder habits) is most common
  • Pain that is severe when there is direct manipulation or compression of the affected area of the spine
  • Pain that does not diminish with rest, and pain that may be worse at night than during the day
  • Back pain along with constitutional symptoms, such as loss of appetite, unplanned weight loss, nausea, vomiting, or fever, chills or shakes

How is a spinal tumor diagnosed?

If a patient has symptoms that suggest a spinal tumor, the patient’s physician will work with a team of specialists to confirm the diagnosis. Diagnostic tests may include x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with contrast to determine the type of tumor, and computed tomography (CT) to determine whether the bone is involved. The diagnosis can be confirmed by a biopsy.

How are spinal tumors treated?

The spinal cord and nerves are highly sensitive, and avoiding damage to these structures is a critical part of surgery. Monitoring techniques may be used throughout the surgery to determine the function of the spinal cord as the tumors are being removed. If the tumor cannot be completely removed, post-operative radiation therapy may improve outcome in some cases. If the tumor is metastatic, chemotherapy may also be helpful.

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