Spinal Cord Tumors

If you're diagnosed with a tumor in your spinal cord, your treatment options will depend on the type of tumor.

Spine tumors may arise in the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back) or lumbosacral (lower back) regions. They may originate in the spinal cord itself, the spinal roots, the dural sac which surrounds the spinal cord, or the vertebrae. They may be primary, originating from the spine or spinal cord, or metastatic, originating elsewhere.

Symptoms

Neck or back pain are common symptoms of spinal cord tumors. The pain is often present at night and worsens with physical activity.

The symptoms associated with spinal cord tumors also can vary depending on the level of involvement.

  • Cervical tumors can cause weakness or numbness in the arms or legs.
  • Thoracic and lumbosacral tumors can cause weakness or numbness in the chest area or legs.
  • You might have difficulty walking.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of a spinal tumor begins by a doctor taking your history and performing a physical examination. Your doctor may order imaging studies that include X-rays, computerized tomography (CT or CAT) scans, and MRIs. Sometimes it's necessary to undergo additional, more specialized testing to clearly define a suspected tumor. Positron emission tomography (PET scans) and nuclear medicine bone scans might be ordered by your doctor to aid in the diagnosis.

In many cases, it's necessary to obtain a tissue specimen of the tumor to determine the exact type. This is most often done by a needle biopsy. The tissue is examined and enables your doctor to determine the exact type of the tumor, which will assist in determining the surgical and non-surgical treatment options.

Nonsurgical Treatment

Nonsurgical options for treating spinal tumors include:

  • Observation.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy.

Some tumors that are not causing major symptoms and do not appear to be aggressive in their behavior may be observed and followed with serial imaging (usually MRI). Some tumor types are sensitive to chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. A course of chemo or radiation therapy may be the first line of treatment in these cases.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery for a spinal tumor is generally indicated for progressive motor weakness or loss of bowel or bladder control of short duration. Surgery may be required in situations where the spine has become unstable because of the tumor. Lastly, surgery may be the only available intervention for some tumors that are insensitive to radiation or chemotherapy.

Surgical options for the treatment of spinal tumors vary from complete to partial removal. Your surgeon will weigh the risks of surgical removal against the other treatment options that may be available.

Surgical stabilization of the spine might be necessary as a result of instability caused by the tumor itself or the surgery to remove it. This may be done by a surgical approach from the front or back of the spine. This could involve going through the neck, chest or abdomen.