Spinal Tumor Overview

A spinal tumor is an abnormal growth of cells located either within the spinal cord itself or, much more often, in its surrounding membranes and tissues. The spinal cord, which along with the brain comprises the central nervous system, is a bundle of nerve cells encased in a protective membrane that travels almost the entire length of the spine, connecting the brain to the nerves in the rest of the body. Tumors affecting the spinal cord are uncommon; they may be either benign or malignant.

However, even benign tumors can compress the spinal cord, leading to irreversible paralysis. They can also impinge upon nerves as they leave the spinal cord.

Malignant tumors rarely originate in the spinal cord itself; most often, cancer compressing the spinal cord has spread from elsewhere in the body to the bones of the spine (vertebrae) or has originated in the vertebrae. Benign tumors usually grow slowly, but malignant tumors may increase in size in a matter of days.

Spinal tumor symptoms may be limited to back pain or may include numbness, loss of sensation and weakness, generally beginning in the legs. Both benign and malignant tumors can damage the spinal cord by interrupting its blood supply. After diagnosis of a malignant tumor, rapid treatment is necessary to limit damage and to prevent irreversible paraplegia.

What Causes Spinal Tumor?

  • The cause of spinal tumors is unknown.
  • Cancer that originates elsewhere in the body, such as the breast, lung or prostate, may spread to the vertebrae.

Symptoms of Spinal Tumor

  • Constant back pain that may spread in a horizontal band around the chest or abdomen. Pain may be described as a burning sensation and may worsen upon exertion, lying down and coughing or sneezing.
  • Partial paralysis
  • Numbness, tingling and muscle weakness usually beginning in the legs
  • Loss of pain and temperature sensation below the site of the tumor
  • Spinal deformity
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Fever

Spinal Tumor Prevention

  • There is no known way to prevent spinal tumors.
  • Regular examinations of the breasts in women and the prostate in men aid in early detection and treatment of tumors in those areas.

Spinal Tumor Diagnosis

  • Patient history and physical examination
  • X-rays of the spine
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
  • CT (computed tomography) scans—with injection of a contrast material (myelography), in some cases
  • Angiogram
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap), to analyze a sample of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Electrical conduction tests
  • Biopsy of the tumor may be required to confirm the diagnosis.

How to Treat Spinal Tumor

  • Surgery may be performed promptly to reduce compression of the spinal cord by removing part or all of the tumor.
  • Large doses of corticosteroid drugs, such as dexamethasone, may be administered to reduce swelling.
  • Radiation therapy may be required in addition to or instead of surgery to treat malignant tumors.
  • Chemotherapy may be advised in some cases to treat malignant tumors.
  • Physical, occupational, and emotional therapy may be recommended to patients and their families to help them cope with major lifestyle changes.
  • Analgesics and steroids can be used to relieve pain and manage swelling.
  • Wearing a brace can increase spinal stability and reduce pain.

When to Call a Doctor

  • Call a doctor if you develop severe, persistent back pain, with or without numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness.


Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor

Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 26 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 02 Feb 2015