What is a Spinal Tumor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2019
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A spinal tumor is a tumor which grows in or around the spine. Primary spinal tumors originate in the spine, while secondary tumors are malignancies which have migrated from elsewhere in the body to the spine. The prognosis for a patient with a spinal tumor varies, depending on where the tumor is, how large it is, what kind of tumor it is, and how early it was identified. As a general rule, early detection greatly improves the prognosis for the patient.

Tumors of the nerve cells such as gliomas can occur inside the spinal cord itself, in intramedullary spinal tumors. Spinal tumors can also be myelomas, leukemias, or lymphomas, which involve the blood, and more rarely, osteosarcomas, which develop in the bones of the spine. Intradural tumors occur in the dura, the tough lining which surrounds the spinal cord, while extradural tumors are outside the dura, surrounding the spinal cord.


As a spinal tumor grows, it puts pressure on the spinal cord. For patients, this means that one of the first symptoms of a spinal tumor is back pain around the region of the tumor. The pressure on the nerves can also lead to changes in sensation, urinary or fecal incontinence, muscle weakness, and sharp, shooting pains. These symptoms usually lead patients to consult a doctor. If the doctor suspects a spinal tumor, medical imaging studies can be used to look for the tumor, and once the tumor is identified, additional studies can be done to learn more about it and develop a treatment plan.

Some spinal tumors are benign, and doctors may take a wait and see approach with these tumors. Malignant tumors need to be treated aggressively, however, as spinal tumors often grow quickly. Surgery to remove the tumor is one option, and the patient may also be given steroids for inflammation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. Physical therapy may also be required to help the patient deal with damage caused by the tumor.

Some spinal tumors are linked with genetic conditions. People diagnosed with these conditions may be encouraged to receive regular checkups to monitor their spinal cords for any signs of tumor development. Others appear for no known reason. When diagnosed with a spinal tumor, patients should ask their doctors about all available treatment options and their risks. Every tumor is different, and treatment plans may be adjusted accordingly. For example, some tumors are considered inoperable due to their location, while others may respond to specialized medications without the need for surgery.


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