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What Are Spinal Tumors?

A spinal tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue within or surrounding the spinal cord and/or spinal column.  These cells grow and multiply uncontrollably.  Spinal tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Spinal tumors are referred to in two ways – by the region of the spine in which they occur (areas are cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral) and by their location within the spine.

Types of Spinal Tumors

There are two general types of spinal tumors:  primary tumors and secondary (metastatic) tumors.

  • Primary spinal tumors originate in the spinal column, such as by growing in the bones, discs, nerves, or other elements within the spine.  Primary spinal tumors are usually benign and occur in younger people.  Hemangiomas are among the most common benign primary spinal tumors and osteosarcomas and multiple myeloma are two of the more common spinal tumors that are malignant. 
  • Secondary spinal tumors, or metastatic spinal tumors, are tumors that have spread to the spine from a cancer that started elsewhere in the body.  These malignant tumors are the most common type of spinal tumors, have the potential to spread further, and are typically fast-growing.  Cancerous cells from the lung, breast, and prostate are most likely to spread and become lodged in the spine.  According to the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that about 90% of diagnosed spinal tumors are metastatic.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

Back pain, especially in the middle or lower back, is the most frequent symptom of both benign and malignant spinal tumors.  Depending on the location and type of tumor, other signs and symptoms can develop, especially as a tumor grows and compresses on the spinal cord, nerve roots, blood vessels, or bones of the spine.

Additional symptoms can include the following:

  • Loss of sensation or muscle weakness in the legs, arms, or chest
  • Stiff neck or back
  • Pain and/or neurologic symptoms (such as tingling)
  • Difficulty walking, which may cause falls
  • Decreased sensitivity to pain, heat, and cold
  • Loss of bowel control
  • Inability to urinate
  • Paralysis that may occur in varying degrees and in different parts of the body, depending on which nerves are compressed
  • Scoliosis or other spinal deformity resulting from a large and/or destructive tumor

A medical examination with emphasis on back pain and neurological deficits is the first step to diagnosing a spinal tumor. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or bone scans, are usually required for a positive diagnosis. 

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