A spinal tumor is a growth that occurs in the spinal canal or the bones of the spine. Some spinal tumors (primary) originate in the spine, and some spread (metastasize) from cancers in other parts of the body. These growths can lead to pain, neurological problems or even paralysis. Even non-cancerous spinal tumors can be life threatening and cause permanent disabilities.
The cause of primary spinal tumors is often unclear. Some may be attributed to exposure to cancer-causing agents. There is also some evidence that a propensity for spinal tumors may be inherited.
The symptoms of spinal tumors vary and may include the following conditions:
- Back pain, especially in the lower or middle back
- Numbness or weakness in the legs, arms or chest
- Difficulty walking, frequent falls
- Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat or cold
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Paralysis, which may be caused by nerves that are compressed by the tumor
Though rare, spinal tumors are a very serious condition. If you experience these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately or schedule an appointment with a Houston Methodist physician at one of the locations listed below.
At Houston Methodist our doctors perform a thorough exam, taking into account a patient’s medical history. Your physician may order X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), all of which may be used to determine whether you have a spinal tumor.
Types of Spinal Tumors
A spinal tumor is designated as primary if it originates in the spine or spinal cord, and secondary if it metastasizes (spreads) to the spine from another part of the body, such as lung, breast, prostate or colon. A chordoma can occur anywhere from the head to the tailbone and may be mislabeled, for example, as a brain tumor when occurring in the head.
Spinal tumors are classified from where they occur:
- Extradural (outside of the dura), beyond the outermost meningeal membrane that surrounds the spinal cord are the most common type of spinal tumor
- Intradural-Extramedullary, within the spinal canal but outside the cord itself; benign and slow-growing spinal tumors, such as meningiomas, neurofibromas and, the most common, schwannomas, occur at this site and are often treated with surgery followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy.
- Intramedullary, within the actual nerves of the spinal cord are often where malignant spinal tumors or spinal column originate, such as osteosarcomas, chordomas and giant-cell sarcomas.
Treating Spinal Tumors
Some spinal tumors can be managed without major medical interventions, but even benign tumors must be monitored closely to ensure they do not grow or alter in ways that can cause serious problems.
The three primary treatment options for spinal tumors include the following:
- Radiation , high energy radiation to shrink the spinal tumor and kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy , strong drugs that aim to kill cancer cells
- Surgery, usually not recommended unless radiation and chemotherapy have proven unsuccessful
At Houston Methodist, a multidisciplinary team determines the best course of treatment for spinal tumors and skillfully implements that treatment.